First open source detection test developed for a gene-edited GMO crop

Published: October 6, 2020

Category: GMO Testing/Non-GMO Certification/Traceability

New test detects canola variety engineered by the U.S. gene-editing company Cibus

A group of non-governmental organizations, non-GMO food associations, and a food retailer have announced that the first-ever public detection method for a gene-edited crop has been successfully developed and published.[1] The gene-edited crop in question is an herbicide-tolerant rapeseed (canola) produced by U.S. company Cibus (SU Canola).

The new research refutes claims by the biotech industry and some regulators that new genetically modified (GM) crops engineered with gene editing are indistinguishable from similar, non-GM crops and therefore cannot be regulated.[2] Some such claims are published here.

The new method detects an herbicide-tolerant rapeseed variety that was developed using gene editing, a new form of genetic engineering. It allows European Union (EU) countries to carry out checks to prevent this unauthorized GM crop from entering EU food and feed supply chains illegally. Until now, EU countries were unable to test their imports for the presence of this GM rapeseed, which is grown in parts of the U.S. and Canada.

The new method also allows food companies, retailers, certification groups, and national food safety inspectors to verify that products do not contain this GM rapeseed. 

The new detection test shows that the claimed difficulties of detecting gene-edited organisms are overstated. It represents a specific detection method for a gene-edited crop in which only small alterations (point mutations) have been made. Moreover, the test distinguishes this crop from genetically similar crops developed via chemical mutagenesis—in this case BASF’s Clearfield rapeseed.

Heike Moldenhauer, EU policy advisor at the German Association Food without Genetic Engineering (VLOG), said: “The new detection method is a milestone in EU consumer and business protection. Authorities can now start identifying unauthorized gene-edited crops. This helps beekeepers, farmers, breeders, feed and food processors and retailers keep these new GMOs out of their supply chains and meet consumers’ demand for non-GMO food.”

Alexander Hissting of VLOG added, “We have developed this test because authorities have failed to do so.”

The new method was published in the scientific journal Foods after peer review.[3] It detects SU Canola, an oilseed rape variety engineered by the American gene-editing company Cibus to withstand certain herbicides.[4] Environment Agency Austria (Umweltbundesamt), a member of the European Network of GMO Laboratories, has validated the method, which meets all EU legal standards.

The European Court of Justice ruled two years ago that gene-edited organisms fall under the EU’s GMO laws. The Court said excluding new GMOs from the regulations would go against the purpose of the legislation. It also said this would fail to respect the precautionary principle that is enshrined in the EU’s founding treaties and is the basis for the EU’s food safety rules.[5] 

The new test shows that EU law governing GM organisms (GMOs) can also be applied to new types of GMOs produced through gene editing, maintaining the EU’s high food safety standards.

Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said: “The EU’s highest court has ruled that gene-edited crops are regulated under the EU’s GMO regime and that this is necessary to protect consumers and the environment. Some claim that gene-edited crops cannot be found and therefore cannot be regulated under the EU’s GMO regime. We have shown that GM crops created with gene editing can be detected. There are no more excuses for failing to apply existing GMO safety and labelling requirements to these new GMOs. The European Commission and governments must build on this success and develop screening procedures that can identify gene-edited products.”

Lead scientist Dr. John Fagan from the Health Research Institute (Iowa, USA) said: “The method we have developed detects what is probably the most challenging class of gene edits—a modification of just a single letter in the genetic blueprint. Since the scientific community has been using similar approaches for two decades to detect more complex GMOs, it is likely that this approach can be used to develop detection methods for most, if not all, gene-edited crops. And the good news is that it uses procedures and equipment similar to those that regulatory and commercial laboratories are already familiar with.”

[1] The term “gene editing” (or “genome editing:) is often used to refer to new genetic engineering techniques that make it possible to obtain new traits without adding any foreign genetic material. The most prominent technique is CRISPR-Cas. Besides intended changes, gene editing also causes unintended genetic alterations that can affect the products’ safety for people and the environment. The long-term health and environmental impact of GM crops engineered with gene editing is as yet untested. So far, two gene-edited GM crops have made it to market, but are only grown in North America: Cibus’ SU Canola and Calyxt’s High Oleic Soybean.
[2] The research was carried out by a consortium led by Dr John Fagan at the Health Research Institute (Iowa, USA). It was funded by NGOs Greenpeace European Unit and Greenpeace Germany, and the Sustainability Council of New Zealand; associations for non-GM foods VLOG (Germany), ARGE Gentechnik-frei (Austria) and the Non-GMO Project (USA); the Organic and Natural Health Association (USA); organic food and farming association IFOAM Organics Europe; and Austria’s leading retailer SPAR. 
[3] Fagan, J., Chhalliyil, P., Ilves, H., Kazakov, S., Howard, S., Johnston, B., 2020, A Real-Time Quantitative PCR Method Specific for Detection and Quantification of the First Commercialized Genome-Edited Plant. In: Foods (Open Access Journal) 
[4] SU Canola has been developed using a gene editing tool called oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM).


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