wheat field under gray sky

What is gene-edited food? Why is it controversial? And should we be eating it? Let’s discuss this today and learn some new vocabulary at the same time!

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  • Gene (n) – a part of the DNA in a cell that controls the physical development, behaviour, etc. of an individual plant or animal and is passed on from its parents.
    • The illness is believed to be caused by a defective gene.
  • Resilient (adj) – able to improve quickly after being hurt or being ill.
    • Life is hard there, but the people are resilient.
  • To breed (v) – to keep animals or plants for the purpose of producing young animals or plants, often for chosen qualities.
    • He bred pigs and cows and sold the meat and dairy products.
  • Organism (n) – a single living plant, animal, virus, etc.
    • Bacteria are single-celled organisms.
  • Mutation (n) – the way in which genes change and produce permanent differences:
    • It is well known that radiation can cause mutation.
  • To exacerbate (v) – to make something that is already bad even worse.
    • This attack will exacerbate the already tense relations between the two communities.
  • Yield (n) – an amount of something positive, such as food or profit, that is produced or supplied.
    • Crop yields have risen steadily.

UK Legalises Gene-Edited Food!

Food security will be one of the biggest challenges facing the world over the next century. As our population increases, and our appetites grow, how will we feed ourselves?

One potential solution is the development of gene-edited food – something the UK legalised only a few weeks ago. The new law in England allows scientists to edit crop DNA to improve certain qualities. The hope is that such practices could allow companies to create crops resistant to climate change and pests.

Gene-editing has a variety of potential uses. It could be used to create crops with better features – like larger apples, juicier pears, or spicier chillis. It could be used to add new features – for example increasing the vitamin or health benefits of certain foods. And it could be used to create more resilient crops – crops better equipped to deal with climate change, extreme weather, or pests.

Today I want to talk gene-edited food in more detail. After explaining the background and meaning of gene-edited food, I will discuss why it is a controversial topic, food security, and end by asking should we be eating gene-edited food? Listen, learn, and pick up some new vocabulary!

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What is Gene-Edited Food?

The food we eat today has been bred and created by farmers for centuries. If you look at paintings from the past, or read written accounts, you’ll realise how different food used to be. Watermelons didn’t have the large amount of juicy red flesh we love today – they were pale and full of seeds. The same is true of banana, tomatoes, and countless other fruits and vegetables.

However, farmers realised that they could produce new varieties of food and create better produce through a process called cross breeding. They could select seeds from the biggest, tastiest, least seeded fruits, and mix them to create a better product. Seedless oranges, massive cucumbers, sweet tomatoes, super spicy chillis – these are all results of crossbreeding.

This is how many of the fruits and vegetables (and meat animals too) we eat today have been developed. The problem is that it can take years to do this. And farmers can’t guarantee the results. It can take many efforts of trial and error to achieve their desired goal. Just because you select seeds from the largest apples, for example, doesn’t guarantee you large apples the following year. It is still a random process.

There are ways to take away the random element. Using genetic methods, scientists can locate the key genes for flavour, size, colour, or other desirable elements, and create new varieties quickly!

There are a few different variations of genetic methods. One is genetic modification (or GM) which involves adding genes from different species, plants, and even animals into another plant’s DNA to create a new variety. It allows you to breed varieties of plants that could not have been bred with traditional methods.

The approach legalised recently by the UK is slightly different. It is known as gene-editing (or GE) and is a newer technique. Instead of adding genes from other plants, scientists can edit the DNA itself, turning certain genes on or off, to create new varieties. Gene editing is a precise and targeted way of altering DNA to add, remove or modify genes in an organism. The UK law will allow this approach as long as the result could, theoretically, have been achieved naturally.

Compared to GMOs, which typically involve inserting foreign genes from a different species, gene-edited foods rely on changes that could have occurred naturally in the same or closely related species. This can make gene editing a more precise and efficient way of altering an organism’s characteristics.

There are a variety of gene-edited crops and animals that have been developed or are in development. For example, scientists have used gene editing to make crops more resistant to disease, pests, and environmental stresses, such as drought. Gene editing has also been used to produce animals with desirable traits, such as leaner meat or resistance to diseases.

Let me give you actual examples of gene-edited foods currently available around the world. In the UK, scientists have developed tomatoes modified to be a source of vitamin D, increasing the nutritional value of the crop. In the US, fruit companies are developing seedless varieties of cherries. And in Japan, it is possible to buy tomatoes containing a calming chemical called GABA and buy sea bream (a fish) which had its genes edited to make it more suitable for sushi.

Why is Gene-Edited Food Controversial?

Gene-edited food is a topic of ongoing debate and controversy due to concerns about its safety, environmental impact, and ethical implications. The EU went so far as to effectively ban the practice a few years ago… why?

One concern is the potential unintended consequences of gene editing, such as unexpected changes to other parts of an organism’s DNA or the transfer of edited genes to other species. Another concern is the potential for gene-edited organisms to have negative effects on natural ecosystems if they were to escape into the environment. On the other hand, these concerns can (and are more likely to) happen naturally as a result of random mutations.

From an ethical standpoint, some people argue that gene editing raises moral concerns about playing with the genetic makeup of organisms. There is also concern about the implications for animal welfare if gene editing is used to produce animals with specific traits.

Arguments against gene-edited food from a social perspective include concerns about the concentration of power within the food industry and the potential impacts on small-scale farmers and local food systems. Critics argue that gene editing could exacerbate existing inequalities and create new ones.

In terms of health, some argue that not enough is known about the long-term effects of consuming gene-edited foods. There are also concerns about the potential for gene editing to introduce new allergens into foods or cause unintended health consequences.

Scientists insist that both GM and GE crops are safe to eat – many of you listening in Asia and the Americas have been eating such food for decades with no negative side effects. Yet, concerns over health has meant that the EU has severely restricted the sale of such products.

The truth, however, is that criticisms and arguments against gene-editing are not particuarly strong. There is no evidence gene-editing is harmful, unexpected side-effects are actually more likely to occur with natural breeding, and farmers could benefit from pest and weather resistant varieties.

Gene-Edited Food and Food Security

Gene-edited food has the potential to play a significant role in addressing food security and reducing food waste. By increasing crop yields and reducing crop losses due to pests, disease, and environmental stress, gene-edited crops could help to ensure a more stable and reliable food supply. Additionally, gene-edited animals could potentially produce more food with fewer resources, reducing the environmental impact of meat production.

There are concerns about the potential impact small-scale farmers and local food systems. Some worry that gene-edited crops could further entrench industrial agriculture and lead to the displacement of traditional farming practices. Others argue that gene editing could exacerbate existing inequalities in the food system by giving larger businesses an unfair advantage over small-scale farmers.

Despite these concerns, some experts argue that gene-edited food has the potential to play a key role in sustainable agriculture. By creating crops that are more resilient to environmental stress, gene editing could help reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers, which can have negative impacts on soil health and water quality. Additionally, gene-edited crops could help reduce food waste by increasing the shelf life of perishable foods and reducing spoilage.

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Should we be Eating Gene-Edited Food?

The question of whether or not we should be eating gene-edited food is a complex one, with both proponents and opponents of the technology.

Proponents argue that gene-edited food has the potential to increase crop yields and reduce food waste, while also promoting sustainable agriculture and reducing the environmental impact of food production. They also argue that gene editing can be used to create crops and animals that are more resilient to disease, pests, and environmental stress, which could help to ensure a more stable and reliable food supply.

Opponents of gene-edited food, on the other hand, have raised concerns about the potential unintended consequences of gene editing, such as unexpected changes to an organism’s DNA or the transfer of edited genes to other species. They also argue that not enough is known about the long-term effects of consuming gene-edited foods, and that there are ethical concerns about playing with the genetic makeup of organisms.

Alternatives to gene-edited food include organic and regenerative agriculture practices, which focus on improving soil health and biodiversity, as well as reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However, it is important to note that these approaches may not be able to address all of the challenges facing the food system, such as increasing crop yields and reducing food waste.

The question of whether or not we should be eating gene-edited food is a complex one, with both potential benefits and drawbacks. While gene editing has the potential to play an important role in addressing food security and promoting sustainable agriculture, it is important to carefully evaluate the risks and benefits before widespread adoption. Additionally, it is important to consider alternatives to gene-edited food and the potential consequences of not adopting this technology.


Final Thought

This episode has tried to introduce the topic of gene-edited food to all of you! I discussed the defintion, some controversies, food security, and whether or not we should all be eating it.

Personally, I have no objection to eating genetically modified or edited crops. And if crops can be edited to help us improve our food security, and increase the durability of crops in places struggling with food needs, I think we should all be in support of such practices.

Of course, in a dream world we would all be able to eat completely natural, organic, locally sourced food. But as our populations increase and food becomes harder to grow, I think we need to find solutions quickly.

What do you think? Should we be eating gene-edited food?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

5 thoughts on “222. What is Gene-Edited Food? And Should We Be Eating It? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. Hi Tom!, very interesting topic, I really enjoined of the reading. I think that with the fast growth of the people in the world, is importan to think in solutions for feed all people, the Gene-Edited food can be a good solution, but I am worry for the human health. I am not 100% convinced that the Gene-Edited will not bring bad conquenses for the human health.

  2. Hi Tom! As usual this is a topic with a lot of relevance in todays days. I’m totally in favor of using these techniques to produce food, specially the Gene-Edited method, of course under a control environment. Best regards … Gorka PS…keep producing these marvelous podcasts

  3. Hi Tom, I agree with you. However, it should be granted the consumers’ freedom on choosing if eat or not this kind of products through a clear labelling.
    Countries which had partially banned GMOs at the end of the last century, as Italy, have lost a great occasion to improve their agriculture and left many crops markets to the competitor countries which hadn’t. The long GMOs experience has showed that there are not risks for health in adopting genetic techiniques on agriculture.
    Yet now we have got a new border, the “synthetic foods”, that is foods which are not produced in the natural soil or natural meat obtained from animals, instead they are produced artificially in laboratory and industrial conditions.
    What do you tihink?

    1. Hi Paolo, as I can see, synthetic food is much more likely a kind of food with a chemical compound…Theoretically saying, it could be riskier to human health than GEF, as long as we are using so many substances in the food, whereas it could be more productive and with lower cost to achieve produce to cater to the market’s demands on food. 🙂

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