Next Time You Eat Lettuce


I hope everyone had a good week!
In all honesty, to me, it was a pretty slow week for current events. Nothing was jumping off the page yelling “write about me”. So today I decided to take a small piece of news, generalize it, and talk about some of the implications.
Let’s talk about lettuce.
Not this kind of lettuce,
but this kind.

The Conscious Consumer Should Be Scared

Scientists have just made one of the first modified foods using CRISPR technology: lettuce. They’ve been able to mass produce it and it will be the first food on the US market to be tweaked using the new technology. It’s even currently available in select restaurants now.
The good news? They chose to make it more nutritious and better tasting.
The bad news? They chose lettuce. They definitely could’ve chosen a cooler food.
So, what’s the big deal? Well, we’ve entered the age of the “informed consumer”. People now care about what they’re eating, where it came from, and what’s in it. For example, some people make sure to only buy organic, others avoid bioengineered food (BE) or GMO, and some people only shop for foods that have the claim “healthy”.
Most people even take pride in this, thinking they are somehow bettering the world.
Me? My drink of choice has been hose-water since ’04, my favorite chef goes by the name of Little Debbie, and I don’t even think I knew what lettuce was before I was 14, so it’s all the same to me.
But this is all new for businesses in the food industry because they’ve never had to cater to their consumer before. It used to be “we make it, you buy it” and now it’s more like “if we don’t make it how you want it, you won’t buy it.”
And this makes it much, much harder to pull off.

Some Background

In 1913, the world was facing a huge food shortage. The world was simply not making enough food to feed everyone, and when you pair that with geopolitical conflict and low crop yields due to climate, the situation was dire. Many people would starve.
That is until Fritz Haber invented the Haber-Bosch process and made fertilizer for the first time. The invention of fertilizer helped save the world from hunger by drastically increasing crop yield and resiliency, won him the Nobel Prize, and introduced the idea of genetically modified foods.
Because of this, GMO foods are not new to us. People have been eating them for over a century, and most foods are, and must be, genetically modified in some way.


Circling Back

So, it’s much, much harder to pull off. Since most foods are GMO, finding ingredients that are “organic” or “non-GMO” is more expensive and difficult to do for businesses.
“Ok, but why should the conscious consumer be scared?” Because when food is modified using CRISPR it’s not required to be called out.
In other words, this lettuce is, quite literally by definition, being genetically altered but doesn’t need to be labeled as bioengineered or GMO. Unlike GMO foods that bend the laws of nature by incorporating genes from other species, gene-edited foods contain modified versions of their own genes, so the USDA doesn’t require the “bioengineered” label it slaps on GMOs.
The logic is that gene-editing merely speeds up a process that can occur naturally through decades of cross breeding.

Not The First Controversy For CRISPR

While CRISPR was first discovered in 1987, it wasn’t until 2012 that studies showed it could be used for a radically new and effective technique for gene editing.
Since then, people have been trying to patent it, businesses have been founded on it, and studies involving it have boomed. Everyone and their mothers want to be involved in it scientifically or financially.
And for good reason some of it’s applications include:
  • Curing genetic diseases like Huntington’s Disease
  • Eradicating Malaria-carrying mosquitos
  • Accelerating cancer research
  • Selecting certain traits in children (eye color, etc.)
  • Creating drought resistant crops
  • More effective drug targeting
And of course, the most important one: creating better tasting lettuce.

Point is, DNA is at the center of everything so any technology that can help manipulate it has huge potential. But of course, with potential comes controversy.

CRISPR is one of the most ethically controversial technologies. The most pressing question being whether it’s ethical to edit the DNA of an embryo.

Buy, Buy, Buy

The technology is still emerging, but it’s already shown us the power it has in the financial markets. When it was first approved back in 2021, it led to billion-dollar swings for companies who claimed to use it.
Lucky for me, I got in on the action and was able to buy low, sell high.

But the bull market has since subdued as the search continues for easily approved applications. Most of the issues it can address are highly regulated and require years of work for approval.
For now, my advice, is when you hear something about CRISPR you buy, at least in the short term, because it’s a revolutionary technology that is vastly underappreciated by some novices.

Cause Vs. Cure

As with anything, it’s important to understand the second and third order effects.

Cause vs. cure or fixing the cause instead of treating the symptom is a well know, and age-old discussion that I think needs to be addressed here. For now, I view CRISPR as a potential cure, and hope it doesn’t take our attention from finding and addressing the root cause of our problem.

Are drought resistant crops a good thing? Absolutely, but we can’t let this cure take our attention off combatting the root cause of global warming, thinking we have fixed everything.

It’s important to understand the full breadth of consequences before we praise the breakthroughs.

Alright, that’s probably enough existential thought for today. For now, I’ll just plan on eating whatever lettuce is on my plate.

Let’s have ourselves a weekend.

from, matt

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