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Opposed to GMOs? Are Monsanto’s new CRISPR crops any better?

Lulu Chang
Monsanto, the agricultural biotech company whose creation of genetically engineered and modified crops has long made it a magnet for controversy, has now licensed the use of CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology.

Semantics are about to get a lot more important when talking about GMOs.

Monsanto, the agricultural biotech company whose creation of genetically engineered and modified crops has long made it a magnet for controversy, has now licensed the use of CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology. In an announcement on Thursday, Monsanto revealed it had reached an agreement with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The new licensing agreement, Monsanto said in its release, “will deliver a wide array of crop improvements to global agriculture.”

So what exactly is CRISPR? In essence, it’s a tool that allows scientists to exchange a couple letters of an organism’s genetic code (either an A, G, C, or T), and replace it with one that is somehow beneficial for a specific purpose. And this, technically, is not the same as creating a GMO. A GMO sees a plant’s genes swapped with DNA from an entirely different organism, which often gives people the heebie jeebies. But with CRISPR, everything is much more precise.

While the Broad Institute, considered a leader in the realm of CRISPR genome-editing technologies, has previously allowed academic institutions and non-profits to use its techniques, the Monsanto deal marks the “first time that the Broad Institute has issued a license for agricultural use.”

“The license to CRISPR-Cas from the Broad Institute provides access to an exciting tool for our growing body of genome-editing research,” said Tom Adams, Ph.D., biotechnology lead for Monsanto. “Genome-editing technology is complementary to our ongoing discovery research and provides an incredible resource to further unlock our world-leading germplasm and genome libraries.”

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Adams told the New Scientist that access to CRISPR will help Monsanto create crops that are more fruitful and hardier, yielding more output and better resisting disease and environmental stresses. “Getting more productivity out of less acres with less inputs is clearly a critical thing for humanity,” he said. “And gene editing is another tool that can help us accelerate that.”

Of course, not everyone is thrilled about the notion of gene editing entering our food source. There are, of course, some restrictions on the licenses that the Broad Institute granted Monsanto. For example, the company can’t make infertile seeds (which would force farmers to continually purchase new ones every year), and Monsanto will also be limited in terms of how it modifies tobacco products.

But like it or not, this may just be the future of food.

“Genome-editing techniques present precise ways to dramatically improve the scale and discovery efficiency of new research that can improve human health and global agriculture,” said Issi Rozen, Chief Business Officer of the Broad Institute. “We are encouraged to see these tools being used to help deliver responsible solutions to help farmers meet the demands of our growing population.”