Crops from new technology emerging quickly, evading regulation
A new technology is being rapidly deployed to create new plant traits, while avoiding government regulations that cover genetically modified plants. Supporters say the new technology offers great possibilities for creating new food plants, while opponents say it is another form of genetic engineering with similar risks.
The technology? Gene editing, which allows creation of “designer” plants without foreign DNA in them. According to proponents, the procedure works like “molecular scissors,” snipping or adding bits of genetic information. Examples? Adding an heirloom tomato “flavor” gene to spice up grocery tomatoes, or changing fatty acid genes in soybeans to eliminate transfats and simulate an olive oil character.
South Dakota farmer Jason McHenry switched from expensive GMO soybean seeds to a gene-edited variety produced by Minneapolis startup Calyxt. “Europe and China are questioning GMOs,” McHenry says. “If you are looking at a market that could be gone, you have to think about alternatives.”
Gene-edited varieties are not “regulated articles” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA admitted in 2017 that plants with profound genetic alterations “may entirely escape regulation.”
Calyxt co-founder and University of Minnesota geneticist Dan Voytas helped create TALEN, a technology that cuts enzymes and severs the DNA chain. Supporters see gene editing as an accelerated breeding technique. CRISPR, a more recent gene-editing tool gaining popularity, is inexpensive and convenient, but surrounded by a patent battle. “It’s like we found a switch to make people’s lives easier…it makes sense to me,” McHenry said.
But opponents see the plants as potentially unsafe, like GMOs. “That is the prize,” said Jim Thomas with the ETC environmental lobbying group. “They are constructing a definition of a GMO so that gene editing falls outside it.”
“It’s just a form of genetic engineering, so the same things should happen,” noted Michael Hansen with Consumers Union. “There should be safety assessments.”
China and the EU haven’t decided whether to regard gene editing as GMO or not; the decision will greatly impact export markets.
Calyxt hopes to soon become the first company to introduce a gene-edited crop commercially. Nineteen plants have been designed already; the company is working on a wheat plant with three times the fiber of standard wheat. But delivering the gene-edited ingredients can be problematic, along with targeting which genes to edit. And unless the plants produce greater yields, they may not seem so attractive. Monsanto has already created a soybean with the improved oil, Vistive Gold, using GMO technology.
Concerned scientists say it’s time to begin the safety testing that has been absent from GMOs. Although the jury’s out globally on how to classify gene editing, Voytas said, “I think the genie is out of the bottle.”
Source: MIT Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/609230/these-are-not-your-fathers-gmos/