Story at a glance:
Pairwise, an agricultural biotechnology company, created Conscious Greens Purple Power Baby Greens Blend, the first CRISPR-edited food available to U.S. consumers.
The company used CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat, to edit mustard greens’ DNA, removing a gene that gives them their pungent flavor.
The greens are first being rolled out in restaurants in St. Louis, Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, before heading to U.S. grocery stores — beginning in the Pacific Northwest.
In 2022, researchers with Boston Children’s Hospital revealed that using CRISPR in human cell lines increased the risk of large rearrangements of DNA, which could increase cancer risk.
Because regulators don’t consider gene-edited foods to be genetically modified organisms (GMOs), they don’t have to be labeled.
Mustard greens are a nutrient-dense source of vitamins and minerals, but their bitter flavor makes them unpalatable to many. To remedy the problem, Tom Adams, cofounder and CEO of Pairwise, told Wired, “We basically created a new category of salad.”
The agricultural biotechnology company, founded in 2017, had raised $90 million by 2021, and $115 million total, “to bring new varieties of fruits and vegetables to market.”
Its first product, Conscious Greens Purple Power Baby Greens Blend, is also the first CRISPR-edited food available to U.S. consumers.
Gene-edited mustard greens coming to U.S. stores
Pairwise scientists used the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, to edit mustard greens’ DNA, removing a gene that gives them their pungent flavor.
The greens are first being rolled out in restaurants and other locations in St. Louis, Springfield, Massachusetts and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, before heading to U.S. grocery stores — beginning in the Pacific Northwest.
Pairwise is careful to describe itself as a “pioneering food startup,” trying to distance itself from its true biotechnology roots. It describes the gene-edited greens as:
“A mix of colorful Superfood leafy greens with a unique, fresh flavor and up to double the nutrition of romaine. Using CRISPR technologies to improve taste and nutrition in produce, Conscious Greens are field-grown Superfood greens that eat like lettuce, offering a versatile new option for chefs and salad lovers alike.”
The company has also built a glossy PR campaign to make its motives seem altruistic and necessary to improve Americans’ diets.
In a news release, Haven Baker, Pairwise co-founder, and chief business officer, stated:
“We’re proud to be bringing the first CRISPR food product to the U.S. We set out to solve an important problem — that most lettuce isn’t very nutritious, and other types of greens are too bitter or too hard to eat.
“Using CRISPR, we’ve been able to improve new types of nutritious greens to make them more desirable for consumers, and we did it in a quarter of the time of traditional breeding methods. Launching Conscious Greens through this exciting partnership with PFG [Performance Food Group] is a major milestone in achieving our mission to build a healthier world through better fruits and vegetables.”
But are CRISPR foods really better — or do they pose unknown, and potentially serious, risks to the environment and the people who eat them? Further, it’s not going to stop here. Pairwise is already working on using CRISPR to create blackberries with no seeds and cherries without pits.
The idea that genetic modification is going to compel people to eat mustard greens when they otherwise wouldn’t is also highly questionable. So the company’s claims that its gene-edited products will boost Americans’ nutritional intake are likely to fall flat.
Is CRISPR really an exact science?
CRISPR is being increasingly used to tinker with natural foods. In addition to altering taste, CRISPR is being used to extend shelf life and create foods that resist certain bacteria and viruses.
Whereas genetic engineering involves the introduction of foreign genes, CRISPR involves manipulating or editing existing DNA. It’s said to be “exceptionally precise.”
In an interview with Yale Insights, Dr. Gregory Licholai, a biotech entrepreneur, explained CRISPR this way:
“So as you probably know, our book of life is made of DNA. DNA itself is many millions of base-pairs, which is like a language. And within that language, there are certain regions which code for genes, and those genes are incredibly important because those genes go on to make up everything about us.
“There’s 40,000 proteins that become outputs of those genes and they are involved in our health, our wellbeing, and any defect in those genes becomes problematic and causes disease.
“What was previously attempted with gene editing was to manipulate genetic information in blocks, basically in big pieces. It’s kind of like trying to edit a book by only being able to rip out a page at a time and transfer a page at a time, without really being able to control the actual words. The power of this technology: it literally comes down to the individual letters.
“So the precision is far better than anything that has happened before. The excitement in the scientific community is being able to go in and very precisely make changes in DNA of actual genes that you can actually turn off bad genes or you can potentially repair genes that have got mutations in them where the code is written incorrectly.”
But CRISPR isn’t always an exact science. As is often the case when it comes to tinkering with genetics, gene editing has led to unexpected side effects, including enlarged tongues and extra vertebrae in animals.
Further, when researchers at the U.K.’s Wellcome Sanger Institute systematically studied mutations from CRISPR-Cas9 in mouse and human cells, large genetic rearrangements were observed, including DNA deletions and insertions, near the target site.
The DNA deletions could end up activating genes that should stay “off,” such as cancer-causing genes, as well as silencing those that should be “on.”