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Episode 4: The Future of Food | Unfold Podcast


AMY: Hey Alexa, this week we’re going to
be talking about the future of food. ALEXA: Okay… just lay it out there, don’t
keep people in suspense or anything. AMY: Well that would be good radio. This is just a podcast. ALEXA: And we’re going to discuss how new
technologies can help us grow more food and waste less. AMY: We’ll look at biotechnologies like
genetic engineering, gene-editing and CRISPR and how they might help us feed more people
worldwide. ALEXA: These are really important topics, but they’re
pretty tough to unfold. AMY: Yeah, but let’s do it anyway. [Unfold music plays] Alexa: Coming to you from our basement studios at UC Davis. AMY: This is Unfold, a podcast where we break down complicated problems and discuss solutions. AMY: I’m Amy Quinton. ALEXA: And I’m Alexa Renee. [Unfold music fades] AMY: We’re going to start this podcast–
as we did the last one- talking about carrots. ALEXA: Amy, what is it with you and carrots? AMY: And we’re going to be talking to this
woman. DIANE: My name is Diane Beckles, I’m an
associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences. AMY: Diane studies plant biochemistry. Or more specifically- DIANE: In my lab we are interested in addressing
basic questions about the factors that determine the quality of fruits and vegetables and cereals. AMY: And even more specifically- DIANE: How the quality of the foods we eat
is affected by refrigeration. AMY: So Alexa, ready for this? ALEXA: Uh-huh. AMY: Diane researches ways to prevent postharvest
chilling injury. ALEXA: That’s cold. AMY: [Laughs] Exactly. You ever put a tomato in a fridge? ALEXA: Yeah. AMY: How did it taste when you took it out? Alexa: Ehh… it was kind of bland. AMY: That’s how the tomato gets injured. ALEXA: [Tsk] Poor tomato… AMY: Well, you ruined it. Still edible, but not so tasty. You might throw it away now, creating more
food waste while some people go hungry. ALEXA: Well that’s not cool. But wait, we’re talking about tomatoes, so
why did you bring up carrots? AMY: Because Diane’s interest in preventing
postharvest chilling injury, in a roundabout way, started with a carrot. DIANE: You know, it started when my dad gave me some
carrot seeds to grow and I thought that was a complete miracle to put these tiny seeds into the ground and
then [Music sound effect] AMY: Boom, food. DIANE: And not just any kind of food but just
this bright orange colored food that tasted really good and I knew was good for me. [Mysterious music fades in] AMY: How could that happen, was it…magic? DIANE: It had to be magic, right? How could sunlight and dirt create this thing,
that had sugar and tasted good and was really pretty? DIANE: And I had a lot of questions and not many
people could answer my questions! [Laughs] And so I realized over time that that’s what
scientists did. [Music fades out] AMY: So what kinds of questions were you asking
that people couldn’t tell you the answers to? Diane: Where did the carrot come from? My father told me something about photosynthesis
and nutrients in the soil, but it didn’t make sense. There were a lot of dots that he could not
connect for me. But that started something in me. This desire to try to understand the natural world
and especially plants. I just thought they were absolutely fascinating. AMY: Her fascination with plants and fruits
and vegetables started in Barbados, where she grew up. ALEXA: And she grew carrots. AMY: And Barbados is a small island. DIANE: Barbados is gloriously 166 square miles. ALEXA: That’s tiny. Really tiny. DIANE: It’s just a speck on this earth and
our population density is pretty high. So we had, when I was a child, about 250,000
people on 166 square miles. And I worried tremendously about having enough
dirt and enough soil to produce food for people on the island. [Sobering music fades in] AMY: Which made her think about the even bigger
problems like… DIANE: How do we feed this growing global
population given that our resources are limited. [Music fades out] AMY: Given Diane’s worry about feeding everyone,
maybe you can guess what she believes to be one of the most important inventions in the
last 100 years? ALEXA: That would take me awhile, so… what…
is it? AMY: It’s the refrigerator. Why? DIANE: It allowed us to store meat and perishable
goods for a longer time and this was important to food security. AMY: But the drawback of the refrigerator? ALEXA: Postharvest chilling injury. DIANE: There are some fruit and vegetables
that, you know, not only will you spoil the quality by putting them in the fridge, you can actually
accelerate the rate at which they deteriorate. And we’re not talking about a small portion
of what we eat we’re talking about at least 65 percent of the most consumed fruits and
vegetables are affected when you put them in the fridge. AMY: Produce like bananas, avocados, zucchini,
pineapples and tomatoes. ALEXA: So if you put a tomato in the fridge
for a while, then pull it out…. AMY: And instead of eating the bland
thing right away, you leave it out, it would get even worse. You’d see dark spots and fungus. It would start to rot. ALEXA: So Diane is trying to figure out a
way to prevent that from happening. DIANE: We are trying to understand the genes
that are mis-regulated when this produce is stored at low temperatures. We believe that if you can understand how
these genes are altered, you know, you can start with developing biotechnological solutions
but also storage solutions. Maybe you can find sprays or dips or physical treatments that can help to make the produce a little more robust. to preserve the integrity of these genes that
are destroyed by refrigeration. [Music fades in] ALEXA: We went to Diane’s lab to speak with
her PhD student Karin Albornoz who is working on the problem. [Door opens and closes] AMY: Karin is conducting research on the genes
of the tomato. She has in front of her a small Tupperware-looking
container of tomatoes. KARIN: What we did in the lab, we actually created transgenic
tomatoes that have a gene [Rubber gloves being snapped] I’m putting my gloves on… and these tomatoes have a gene
from another species. AMY: Yes, foreign DNA from another species. It’s genetic engineering or what consumers
sometimes call a GMO. If you need a refresher on that, please listen
to Episode 2 of Unfold. ALEXA: But in this cold… tomato case, Karin
has introduced a gene from a wild species of tomatoes that evolved in the Andes to tolerate
cold and… KARIN:… and also from a weed that doesn’t
enjoy cold but is more cold-tolerant so the tomatoes I’m evaluating now were in the
cold room at very low temperature for three weeks and then they were transferred to room
temperature for three days. ALEXA: The result was unexpected and… well… not good. KARIN: These tomatoes don’t look very good
they have sort of a yellowish orangish color and they have signs of decay. There are fungi growing
on the tomatoes right now because they are damaged by the cold treatment and that is actually
an interesting result because we get to try to understand what is happening behind the result and see
the real effect of the gene that we introduced into the tomatoes. [Music fades in] AMY: Finding solutions that would prevent
the tomato from rotting and improve handling after it’s been picked would help prevent
food waste. ALEXA: But Diane says we’re obviously not
there yet. DIANE: In terms of coming up with a lasting
solution that, you know, would make a huge shift in industry I think that may be at least 10 years away
if not beyond. I hope I am wrong. I would love to be wrong. AMY: It’s even more critical to address
these issues as the climate changes and the population is predicted to boom. ALEXA: Which is why Diane isn’t just hoping
to improve the shelf life and handling of the tomato but also another more widely eaten
vegetable– the potato. DIANE: [Laughs] Potatoes, tomatoes, potatoes, I feel
like there should be a song about them.[Uplifting music fades in] It’s my life. Ketchup and chips, anyhow. [Laughs] [Music plays] ALEXA: So what’s wrong with potatoes you
may ask? After all, you can store them for a pretty
long time. [Music fades out] AMY: But like the tomato, it’s also sensitive
to cold, right? So instead they’re stored at higher temperatures
than ideal. And that can break down the starch to sugar. DIANE: So what happens when the starch is
broken down to sugars? Well, you lose some of the yield, right, because the
sugars… this is not the stuff that we value in chips and fries. AMY: But something even more insidious happens
– especially if you then throw those potatoes in hot oil. ALEXA: You mean make French Fries? AMY: Or chips if you’re from Barbados DIANE: So when you fry your chips and you
see those black spots or if you go to a fast food restaurant or you buy frozen chips and
you see blackened regions that’s probably attributable to acrylamide formation. AMY: Acrylamide is not good. DIANE: It’s a carcinogen. AMY: Now we could all just avoid fries. ALEXA: But what would be the fun in that? Amy: So Diane wants to make these fries CRISPR-ed. ALEXA: What? AMY: Trying to come up with a verb for a process
that’s hard to explain. ALEXA: Ok, well that didn’t work. AMY: She wants to use a gene-editing technology
called CRISPR. ALEXA: And CRISPR stands for AMY: Clustered ALEXA: Regularly AMY: Interspaced Alexa: Short AMY: Palindromic ALEXA: Repeats AMY: Clustered ALEXA: Regularly AMY: Interspaced ALEXA: Short AMY: Palindromic ALEXA: Repeats! [Space sound] AMY: Which you really don’t need to commit
to memory. ALEXA: All you need to know is that this DNA
editing tool … AMY: could revolutionize food. Think of it as a new kind of molecular scissors. You can introduce or eliminate certain traits
without requiring foreign DNA or genes from another species – which you do with GMOs. DIANE: There is a precision there that is
absolutely delicious. AMY: Delicious. She really said that. Diane: You hardly have a genetic footprint
on the edited crop. And it’s so precise and so similar to the original
parent that you’ve modified that the USDA has, you know, said that edited plants do not need to
be treated as regulated articles. So they are essentially non-GMO. ALEXA: Diane is using CRISPR technology
to change the starch in the potato. DIANE: We want to alter the structure of starch
in potatoes not only so that it’s difficult to break down during cold storage, which would
help with the acrylamide problem, but also so it’s difficult to break down when we
eat it. AMY: Making the starch more fibrous and well,
healthier. ALEXA: It sounds like a 3 for 1 right? AMY: Right, she’d create a healthier potato,
with a longer shelf life that doesn’t produce acrylamide, which is carcinogenic. DIANE: You know, I have this, this vision that, you know, if you could
use gene-editing technology to produce a food product that clearly the consumer can see
would have positive benefits for their health and this product would also help mitigate
environmental damage, that, you know, they would gravitate toward such a product, they would see the
value of biotechnology. [Hopeful music fades in] [Music plays] AMY: Diane believes CRISPR and gene-editing
wouldn’t just create healthier potatoes or food that won’t spoil. It could also create crops that could withstand
droughts, floods and disease. ALEXA: All of which are imperative with climate
change and a growing population. ALEXA: But biotechnology isn’t an
easy sell as we’ve seen with the GMO debate. [Music fades out] AMY: While the USDA doesn’t regulate gene-editing
in plants as it does in GMOs… there are still concerns about using gene-editing and
CRISPR technology when it comes to breeding animals. Alexa, I’m sure you’ve heard about our
hornless cows that animal geneticist Allison Van Eenennaam has bred. ALEXA: Yeah, she used gene-editing to prevent
a cow’s offspring from having horns. AMY: Right, and this was for animal welfare
reasons to prevent them from hurting each other and their handlers. Right now, farmers burn off a calf’s horns. ALEXA: [Tsk] Ow. [Sad tone] AMY: Yeah, exactly. So I went to our feedlot here on campus to
check up on them and talk to Alison about the future of gene-edited animals. ALISON: Hello guys! [Cows moo] Cows:(MOO) ALISON: They’re very chatty this morning,
how are you boys? AMY: Alison is talking to her hornless cows
and well, they’re talking back. [Barn background noise] ALISON: What do you think about not having
horns? Cows: (MOO) ALISON: Wow didn’t know they were that vocal. [Cows moo] AMY: Instead of horns typical of the breed,
these guys have hair where horns should be. Alison used gene-editing to knock out the
gene responsible for horn growth and replace it with a gene of a bull that doesn’t
produce that trait. Some cattle breeds, like Angus, naturally
don’t grow horns. ALISON: There’s about 9 million dairy cows
in the U.S. so that’s about 9 million calves a year or so that are having their horns burned
off and so, I know I’m a geneticist but genetics is a better way to address this problem
than physically burning them off, so that’s kinda the idea. AMY: Now Alison is researching any potential effects
from the gene-edit. ALISON: So we’re being asked, are these animals,
you know, normal? And so it’s like well yeah, they’re cows
and they don’t have horns and so we’re also documenting their health status and their
eventually milk production and whether the meat in the case of the bulls – sorry boys-
is different to normal, because it’s the first offspring of an edited animal we’re
doing this kind of really thorough evaluation of everything. Luckily for Alison, today is the day the gene-edited
female offspring gets a pregnancy check. A pregnancy is important in determining whether
a gene-edit affects milk. ALISON: Are you going to preg check her?
Ooh, oooh, we should go do that. Let’s go do that. It’s very lucky that we’re out here for
this. AMY: If you’ve ever seen a cow get a pregnancy
check, you know why it would be hard to imagine anyone getting excited by it. But hey, I’m no animal scientist. AMY: Veterinarians soon corral the animal
into a squeeze shoot that steadies her for the pregnancy check. [Sound of metal rattling] Veterinarian: So I’m going to put my probe
in right now…[Veterinarian’s voice fades, cows moo] AMY: But today the vet had to deliver bad
news. Veterinarian: Right now I’m not seeing any
evidence of pregnancy, unfortunately. [Voice fades] AMY: Alison was hoping the gene-edited animal
-named Princess- and her control in this experiment- a non-gene-edited cow- were both pregnant
at the same time in order to test similar milk samples. AMY: Alison’s other gene-editing project
is using CRISPR to create bulls that will father only male offspring. ALISON: Males are about 15 percent more efficient
than females at converting feed into gain, so they basically require less feed to get
to market weight. [Birds chirp in background] That could make the beef industry more efficient. In fact, gene-editing technology holds huge
potential in farm animals. It could make pigs, chickens and cattle resistant
to viruses and nasty diseases. But unlike gene-editing in plants, the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration says it will treat the edited DNA of an animal as if it
were a drug. ALISON: It’s really made gene-editing as
if we’re doing drug research like we’re, I don’t know, testing pharmaceutical product on them or
something and it’s not it’s their DNA has been tweaked- it’s not a chemical. AMY: The concern in part is that gene-editing
technologies like CRISPR may have so-called off target effects. Altering the DNA in one part of the genome
may have consequences on another part. But Alison says a lot of the controversy stems
from the potential use of CRISPR to genetically engineer humans. ALISON: And that’s fine… … and so a really simple way to address that would
be to say if you’re editing humans then you’re subject to this regulation, but if
you’re doing cattle breeding or food animal alterations where you’re not introducing
foreign DNA, in other words, you’re not making it a GMO, then you’re going to be
treated like traditional breeding. AMY: She says the FDA rules for animals are
a huge regulatory block that will require elaborate and costly safety studies. She believes it could end gene-editing research
on animals in the U.S. ALISON: It concerns me that plant breeders
will be able to use this technology and animal breeders won’t. At the end of the day we’re both producing
food and in fact I would argue the demands for things like disease resistance and some
of the animal welfare traits like not growing horns that could be addressed using these
genetic approaches will basically not be allowed to be used. [Music fades in] [Music plays] AMY: So Alexa, Alison says gene-editing can
be used as one of the main drivers of sustainability. If we can use it to produce cows resistant
to infection or chickens immune to avian flu, we could keep production pretty high. ALEXA: And reduce the use of antibiotics…which
could be healthier for humans too. AMY: Right, making a gene-edited product that has
positive attributes for humans seems to be an easier sell. So it kind of makes sense that the first gene-edited
crop – which just hit the US market this year – is a gene-edited soybean that is supposed
to be healthier for consumers. [Music fades out] ALEXA: That’s right, I heard about that. It apparently creates an oil with no trans-fat
and is being served up in some restaurants. But regulations seem to be putting a hold
on using the technology in animals, right? AMY: Yeah, and in Europe gene-edited animals
and plants are being regulated as GMO foods, so it’s even tougher to bring either one
of those to the marketplace. ALEXA: So I guess we’ll just have to wait
and see how all of this unfolds? [Laughs] AMY: [Laughs] Such an appropriate verb Alexa. Next time on Unfold, we’re going to talk
about the Internet of Food, whatever that is. We’ll explain it. [Unfold music plays]

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