At the end of March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the government agency regulating genetically engineered plants, clarified that under its biotechnology regulations the agency “does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques.” Essentially, this statement signals that the USDA does not, and has no intentions to, regulate gene edited plants, because using gene editing to make changes in plants is no different than selective breeding.
You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief on many farms throughout the nation, as this statement provides growers some certainty that researchers will not be forced to spend countless years and millions of dollars investing in their product through the regulatory process. The promise of gene-editing to solve some of the nation’s toughest agricultural challenges, suddenly became more promising.
In the wake of this new certainty, however, Wall Street Journal reporters Jacob Bunge and Amy Dockser Marcus dive into the question, “Will people eat it?”
And rightfully so. Even with the Federal Drug Administration and the World Health Organization determining that GMOs are safe, activists worked hard to sow fear and skepticism about the technology in the public. And it worked. Today, these same activists are looking to do the same by blurring the lines between GMOs and gene-editing. However, as Bunge and Marcus explain, these technologies are not the same:
“Those older techniques generally involve adding in genes from outside species, including bacteria, viruses and other plants. Inserting such genes enables crops to survive herbicide sprays or repel destructive bugs.
“The new gene-editing technologies enable scientists to achieve some of the same effects by altering the plants’ own DNA, without inserting new genes. With Crispr-Cas9, the most widely used system, scientists can program genetic guides to target a location along the plant’s DNA, where the Cas9 protein cuts the DNA. The cells change the DNA sequence as the cut is repaired. Scientists are using Crispr to make drought-resistant corn, reduced-gluten wheat and tomatoes with easy-to-remove stems.”
And just like the USDA alludes to in its statement, growers understand that gene-editing should instead be considered an advancement in selective breeding:
“[The agricultural industry] describes the editing technologies as an extension of plant breeding, the centuries-old practice of crossing plant strains to create improved offspring. Gene editing, the industry says, can yield the same results as crossbreeding, only faster.”
Bunge and Marcus note that the distinction between GMOs and gene-editing is “critical” for an industry that looks to develop plants that carry beneficial traits, such as disease-resistance and drought-intolerance, without breaking the bank or wasting precious time. According to the agriculture consulting firm Phillips McDougall, Ltd., it takes an average of 13 years and $136 million to develop and launch a traditional biotech crop (i.e. GMOs) through the current regulatory framework.
Therefore, USDA’s guidance on gene-editing is a step in the right direction, especially for researchers and farmers looking to harness the technology without heavy burden; however, as this Wall Street Journal piece outlines, for the public to embrace the technology they’ll need to understand that it is a continuum of selective breeding, not GMO 2.0.