The public doesn’t trust GMOs. Will it trust CRISPR?

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on Wednesday released a report on how to address the most pressing problems of American agriculture. The list of those problems is long and scary: climate change, food waste, water scarcity, food-borne illness, pests, and disease. “Agriculture is confronting a crisis no less epic than the dustbowl of the 1930s,” said Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation, which commissioned the NASEM report, in a statement.

The report identifies five scientific tools to improve sustainability and resilience, and four of them are pretty uncontroversial: understanding soil microbes, deploying sensors, integrating systems, and managing data.

The fifth is gene editing. If the past is a predictor, that one will raise hackles. Nothing in agriculture is as divisive as a modified genome.

But does the past have to be a predictor? Is it possible that new gene editing techniques like CRISPR — along with new applications, new players, and a new way of talking with the public — give science the chance to press the reset button on genetic modification?

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