What’s the Difference between GMOs & CRISPR?

gmo-crispr concept using scalpel and scissors shown with vegetables

What is a GMO?

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) involve transferring a gene from one species to another to provide an organism with a new trait – like pest resistance or drought tolerance. GMOs are also referred to as “transgenic,” for transfer of genes.

Bt corn is an example of a GMO crop that helps reduce pesticide use against the European Corn Borer, a pesky caterpillar that eats the crop. Genes from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, are inserted into corn leaves. Bacillus thuringiensis produces proteins with insecticidal properties that specifically target the European Corn Borer. When the worm starts munching on the corn leaves, it ingests the soil bacterium and dies. The plants produce the toxins in their tissues and there is no need to spray synthetic pesticides or apply Bt mixtures topically.

GMOs involve transferring a gene from one species to another to endow an organism with a new trait – like pest resistance or drought tolerance.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR is a very precise way of altering or deleting DNA from the same species to obtain the desired outcome. CRISPR allows scientists to shorten the natural evolution of plants by years.

Drought resistant corn, for example, is CRISPR engineered and will enable corn to grow and thrive with limited water. As the climate changes and water becomes scarcer, this will be very important to this major world crop. Another example is the non-browning mushroom, where the gene responsible for browning is silenced. The mushroom enjoys a longer shelf life and there is less food waste.

CRISPR involves editing a gene within the same species to achieve the desired outcome.

Gene-edited crops have the potential to make plants that are higher yielding, drought tolerant, disease resistant, more nutritious, or just better tasting.

CRISPR technology can also be applied to human and animal health and welfare. Scientists are working on cures for Type I DiabetesAlzheimer’s and other human diseases using CRISPR technology. With regard to animals, dairy cows can be saved the pain of manual horn extraction (disbudding) by introducing genetics from Angus cows, which are born without horns.

Both GMO and CRISPR technologies have the potential to provide healthier, more nutritious food, and allow farmers to grow crops with fewer agricultural chemicals and less water.  Additionally, CRISPR is emerging as a promising tool not only for plants and animals but also for human health.

In the News: European Court Hinders CRISPR Technology

crispr technology concept

The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), which represents all 28 countries in the European Union, has set back progress by regulating the genetic engineering technique, CRISPR, to such an extent that it will stifle growth in agricultural innovation.

As a surprise to almost everyone, the court ruled that crops produced from CRISPR-Cas9 must face the same rigorous, time-consuming and hugely expensive evaluative process as genetically modified crops.

In contrast to the European Court, the USDA recently issued a statement that the agency does not plan to regulate plants edited with CRISPR technology. The USDA deemed a distinct difference between edited genomes and genetic modification. This decision only applies to crops with genes removed by the technology or added if the genes are commonplace in the species. GMOs and other transgenic crops, with DNA modified from another organism to make the crop pest-resistant, for example, will still be closely monitored by the USDA.

“Genome editing…can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.” (USDA Press)

Why are we concerned about what the European Union does with gene editing?

Imagine for a moment that we still used a horse and plow to grow and harvest the food we eat. We would all be hungry. Food production has kept pace with population growth due to ongoing seed, planting and harvesting technology. Seeds resistant to pests and diseases, GPS-driven tractors, and precision irrigation are some of the technologies that have helped to increase crop yields, preserve and improve soils, and produce healthier foods.

Since the 1940s, corn yield has increased to roughly 170 bushels an acre from 30. This has saved over 2.7 billion acres of land, globally. In 1990, the average farmer fed 100 people. Today, the average farmer produces food and fiber for 165 people annually, both in the U.S and abroad!

Food would not be as plentiful today if we kept to horse and plow methods of cultivation.

Modern tractors are efficient and use precise GPS technology to manage fields and crops.

The EU Ruling Causes Frustration.

The Court’s ruling, which the French government requested, has not received much public praise. This decision shocked many in the business and academic communities regarding its questionable logic.  Even European editorial pages sympathetic to the anti-GMO position expressed incredulity with the decision.

Until now, Europe’s regulatory approach to genetic engineering was simple: Anything that could occur naturally should not be as heavily regulated, but “unnatural” processes, like GMOs, require strict regulation. GMOs are considered “unnatural” as they use a transgenic process of inserting genes from one organism into another organism.

CRISPR, on the other hand, uses the organism’s own genetic material, therefore the change could occur naturally. There are no transgenic properties in CRISPR. It is just a faster and more precise way to breed better crops compared to what farmers have been practicing for centuries. CRISPR can help plants resist pests and disease, and survive in higher temperatures and drier soil conditions.

So, by stating that CRISPR must now undergo heavy regulation, the ECJ has contradicted itself on the topic of genetic engineering. In fact, they’re creating even more confusion. For instance, did you know the EU considers radiation as a “natural” process and therefore is not as regulated? This “natural” process is called conventional mutagenesis and includes the use of chemicals or radiation to cause mutations within the plant for future breeding purposes. How is radiation, an imprecise method of breeding, any more “natural” than CRISPR?

“By any sensible standard, this judgment is illogical and absurd.  For a start, it argues that crops should be judged not on the safety of their traits but only by the technology that was used to create them.  It also maintains that the highly precise technology of gene editing is somehow more risky than past, imprecise techniques. This is simply untrue.” (The Sunday Observer, July 29, 2018)

The Court’s decision ignores this critical scientific point of difference. Additionally, this ruling further mystifies the already complex issue of GMOs. As we saw with GMOs, some countries may follow Europe’s lead on this ruling. This will be especially detrimental to the developing world, with concerns about food security with a growing population. Basing those policies on poor science and an over-abundance of caution could forestall the very improvements in farm productivity needed around the world.

“To classify gene-edited crops as GMOs and equivalent to transgenic crops is completely incorrect by any scientific definition.  Precise modern gene-editing technologies allow accurate, predictable changes to be made in a genome.” (Nick Talbot, molecular geneticist. University of Exeter, United Kingdom)

A Loss for Europe’s Ag Sector

Immediate effects from the ECJ ruling.

The ruling will have immediate and long-term effects on Europe’s farmers and ranchers. As of now, all ongoing trials of gene-edited crops and animals in the EU must cease, halting valuable research findings and turning ag R&D spend into sunk costs for many. To get a field study up and running, the EU now requires that they first receive authorization.

As for crop and animal sales, the European Food Safety Authority must review any plants or animals affected by these gene-editing techniques before for approval. The approval process must demonstrate that the organisms are safe for consumption as well as the environment; the EU then grants final authorization for commercial use.

Once approved for commercial distribution, genetically edited plants and animals will require special labeling indicating its GE status, and all products must be traced back to its source.

Europe to fall behind in global competition.
Another consideration of this ruling is that it will now be prohibitively expensive and out of reach for smaller companies and institutions to enter this globally-competitive market. Taking just one gene-edited plant through the European regulatory process costs about $35 million, which is only accessible to the largest of companies. This will force many to either give up or move out the E.U.

“[This ruling is] the death blow for plant biotech in Europe.’ (Sarah Schmidt, Heinrich Heine University of Dusseldorf)

This will also have a broader effect on the European agricultural market.  Their crops will become increasingly more expensive to produce while other global producers offer better, less expensive crops for customers worldwide. Use of bio-engineered crops is expanding steadily around the world, especially in the United States and throughout South America, where they’re competing for lucrative foreign markets. In addition, trading with Europe will be increasingly difficult since the labeling laws will be different.

Effects on global food supply. The FAO reports that we need to grow as much food in the next 50 years as we have in the past 10,000 years combined.  This means the world’s farmers will have to grow about 70% more food than what is now produced. How are we going to do this without continuing to advance technology?

Is Glyphosate Safe?

glyphosate - roundUp

At my home, we struggle with an ongoing battle against goutweed— a Hydra Lernaia of the invasive weed world. If you pull or cut this weed, it will only sprout more roots underground as a survival response. We researched and spoke with weed experts and ended up turning to Roundup, a glyphosate product, to get rid of it. And after three applications this past spring, the weed was finally gone.

At Dirt-to-Dinner, we have researched and written about glyphosate before and concluded it safe for use as directed. But with the enormous judgment against Monsanto, in California last month, have things changed?

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide – meaning it kills anything green and growing that it is sprayed on. It is the active ingredient in Roundup®, among other herbicides, and is marketed to homeowners and farmers to kill weeds in lawns, crop fields, vineyards, and orchards. Other major users are golf course owners who use glyphosate to keep the greens and fairways pristine and the U.S. Forest Services – for forest management.

Glyphosate is also used in conjunction with herbicide-tolerant seeds for corn, soy, and cotton. So, for example, a farmer can plant Roundup-ready soybeans in the early spring, then spray the field with glyphosate for weed control and not kill the soybean seedlings.

Why do farmers use glyphosate?

Weeds compete with crops for nutrients, water, and sunlight and some even release toxic chemicals through their roots that directly harm crops. Controlling weeds with herbicides like glyphosate is a critical part of field management for farmers to achieve profitable yields. This also affects consumers in that higher yields translate into more plentiful and affordable food.

Additionally, farmers practicing no-till farming may use glyphosate to clear their fields for planting. In this case, farmers use herbicides to suppress weeds instead of tilling their field to rip them out. Reduced tillage means lower fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions from not firing up the tractor a countless number of times. It also means more decomposing matter in the soil which creates a healthy soil. Healthy soil creates strong plants, retains water, and reduces runoff and erosion.

Here is a great video produced by Know Ideas Media explaining why farmers use glyphosate.

How does glyphosate work?

Glyphosate inhibits the activity of an enzyme, called EPSP synthase, which is essential to plant growth. EPSP synthase is not found in humans or animals, and when applied to growing weeds,  just stops them in their tracks.

Once absorbed by a plant, glyphosate travels to the roots, where it is broken down naturally by bacteria and other organisms living in the soil.

How much glyphosate does the average farmer use?

Brian Scott is a soybean, corn and wheat farmer who manages 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. In this YouTube video, he demonstrates that the amount of glyphosate applied to his crops is less than 2 soda cans for every acre of land. Canadian farmer Jake Leguee puts in it another way:

“Here’s the thing about spraying a chemical like glyphosate. An acre of land is 43,560 square feet, which is a little smaller than an American football field. On that acre, 360 grams of glyphosate active ingredient is sprayed. Put another way: 2 cans of beer of glyphosate sprayed over an area almost the size of a football field. That’s 0.015 mL of beer on each square foot – and that includes the solution the glyphosate active ingredient is suspended in. That is an incredibly low concentration. A standard “drop” of water is 0.05 mL. That’s less than a third of a drop of water!”

Is glyphosate safe to use?

The science says yes. Pesticides used on conventional and organic crops are highly regulated and undergo rigorous scientific evaluation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is through this process that pesticides are safe when used according to the product label. In the case of glyphosate, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and regulatory authorities throughout the world have reaffirmed that glyphosate is safe to use as directed and does not cause cancer.

As farmer Jake Leguee says, “…it has absolutely been the single greatest invention in agricultural history. And it is unequivocally, fantastically safe. It is one of the lowest toxicity herbicides we use on our farm. It is less toxic than alcohol. Less toxic than caffeine. “

What about the findings of glyphosate residues in our food?

Whether farmed conventionally or organically, trace amounts of pesticide residues can find their way into our food system. The question is: how much residue is too much? The answer is: to consume the amount that is too much requires you to eat many, many portions, every day, for the rest of your life!

To understand how much is too much, we need to understand the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI).  ADI is a measure of the amount of a specific substance in food or drinking water that can be ingested on a daily basis over a lifetime without an appreciable health risk. The ADI is set with a large margin of safety, usually 100 times the maximum effect seen in the laboratory. The European Union has set an ADI for glyphosate at 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. The U.S. EPA figures are 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Cheerios™ by General Mills and Old Fashioned Oats by Quaker® Oats were among the favorite consumer products recently tested for glyphosate residue by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group has a history of presenting (or misrepresenting) data in a manner that causes unnecessary fear.

In this household, Cheerios™ was a staple breakfast item in this household during my children’s younger years. I wondered about EWG’s claim that I poisoned my kids.

In the examples below, we use the more conservative European Union Acceptable Daily Intake for glyphosate (0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day).

The science says… The highest level of glyphosate found in the EWG report for Cheerios (serving of 28 grams), was 0.53mg/kg. The highest level of glyphosate found in Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats (serving of 40 grams) was 1.3 mg/kg.

A child weighing 11 pounds would have to eat 29 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 101 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

An older child weighing about 44 pounds would have to eat 115 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 404 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is testing for glyphosate levels in harvested crops for the first time, released data in October 2018. In milk and eggs, none was detected, according to the agency. In corn and soybean samples that did test positive (many tested negative), the amounts were below minimum levels established by the EPA.

What about the lawsuit against Monsanto?

The California jury ruled based on their assertion that Monsanto intentionally kept Roundup’s potential risks hidden from the public – it did not link glyphosate with cancer. Monsanto maintains that glyphosate does not cause cancer. Decades of scientific studies have shown the chemical to be safe for human use. (If you would like to read more about this case, read here.)

What are the herbicide alternatives?

First introduced in the mid-1970s, glyphosate has low toxicity to humans and animals and decomposes in the soil. While there are certainly other chemicals that farmers use, glyphosate replaced a class of much more dangerous herbicides and is considered the safest and most environmentally friendly herbicide on the market today.

Frozen Fruits & Veggies: Is Fresh Always Best?


A couple of us at Dirt-to-Dinner grow veggie gardens and have been reaping its bounty this summer with deliciously fresh produce. And if you frequently visit farmers’ markets, perhaps you’ve taken advantage of all the beautiful fruits and veggies the summer offers. But now that the season is coming to an end, what are we going to do with our harvest? If we freeze our produce, do we lose important nutrients? And can we just stick them in the freezer straight from our garden? What we found may surprise you…

Fresh vs. Frozen: The Nutritional Showdown

Consumers unanimously prefer fresh, whether in our gardens or at the supermarket. When we see the fresh produce section in our grocery store, we imagine our fruits and veggies plucked from a farm and quickly delivered to the produce aisles.  This imagery, in turn, leads us to believe that the produce not only tastes better but is also more nutritious. But this is not necessarily true.

When it comes to nutrition, eating fruits and veggies is most important, regardless if they are fresh or frozen. More often than not, the nutrients will be the same either way. For example, minerals and fiber don’t vary much between fresh and frozen produce. And for other nutrients, like vitamins, the difference is quite minimal.

“Minerals like iron are almost bulletproof, and the fiber doesn’t care at all
whether it’s heated or frozen.”
– Dr. Ali Bouzari, Culinary Scientist and Co-founder, Pilot R+D

Which varieties of produce are better fresh or frozen?

Though nutritional differences are slim between fresh or frozen, we’ll need to take a closer look at different types of fruits and veggies to see a variance. Fat-soluble nutrients, like vitamins A & E and beta-carotenelose some of their potency during a long distribution process from farm to distributor to grocery store. This is especially true in the winter, when most produce travels internationally to our grocer, taking several weeks to transport.

This includes produce like carrots, sweet potatoes, and collard greens. These can be more nutritious in their frozen forms as they travel straight from the farm to the processing facility where they are frozen within hours due to a very efficient logistical process.

Water-soluble nutrients, like vitamins B & C and polyphenols, are in produce like spinach, apple, and citrus. These foods are not as efficient at retaining their compounds when frozen. So, if it’s important for you to get the most nutritional bang for your buck, then stick with fresh for these.

 It is recommended that you don’t keep frozen produce in your freezer for longer than a year. After that time, quality and texture will diminish.


How to Freeze Homegrown Produce

If you have a garden of your own, it’s time to start planning for the cooler months so you can continue enjoying your produce in the most nutrient-dense way possible. For most of your bounty, that will mean freezing them for preparation and cooking later in the year. Here are the general guidelines for freezing fresh produce:

  • Fruits and veggies should be chopped into bite-sized pieces before being frozen
  • Veggies should be blanched, or quickly boiled, for a couple minutes, and then placed in an ice-water bath to stop nutrient and color degradation
  • Fruits should be thoroughly washed and dried
  • Freeze produce on a cookie sheet in a single layer
  • Once frozen, move the produce to freezer bags for longer-term storage. See our handy table below for more details on specific produce items:

Another Reason to Freeze: Frozen Produce Reduces Food Waste

Here’s some food for thought: slightly more than half of our fruits and veggies go uneaten, thus ending up in landfills. Although some loss happens during the distribution process at grocery stores and restaurants, a whopping 43% of all food waste happens in our own homes, making us the largest single contributor to food waste. YIKES!

This is where frozen produce steps in. How often do you throw out produce that’s gone bad in your fridge or fruit bowl? Probably far more frequently than you throw out your frozen food. Thankfully, younger generations are more concerned about food waste than their older counterparts (Source: Mintel, “Frozen Produce Should Focus on Waste-Saving Benefits”, Oct 2017). This makes them a good example to follow when purchasing frozen produce.