The US Department of Agriculture has announced that CRISPR-edited foods will not be regulated in the same way as some other genetically modified organisms.
Since 2016, at least a dozen CRISPR-edited crops have fallen outside of the organization’s regulatory purview. The announcement makes their stance official: Effective immediately, certain gene-edited plants can be designed, grown, and sold for consumption without regulation.
“With this approach, the USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.
The logic follows that gene-editing is simply a faster, more direct way to genetically alter plants than other plant-breeding techniques currently not regulated. In the traditional sense, plant breeding has been around for thousands of years. By intentionally cross-breeding plant species, agriculturalists can produce new crop varieties with more desirable characteristics.
This new regulation only encompasses genetic editing between similar plant species. Previously, scientists would merge genes from bacteria and viruses found in plant pests with a plant's DNA. While it worked, scientists weren't able to control where those genes would be inserted and this led to concerns about unnatural genetic manipulation.
Reasons for interbreeding range from increasing nutritional quality and adaptability to increasing resilience in the face of changing climate conditions. Crops will not be subject to special regulations as long as the gene alteration could have been bred in the plant and the gene-edited plants don’t contain foreign material. It gives CRISPR-edited plants a bypass through red tape required for other GMOs and the regulations overseeing agricultural biotechnology.
Gene-editing technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered in certain places along the genome. CRISPR is “faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient” than traditional practices. From antimalarial mosquitos to reviving wooly mammoths, CRISPR can be used in a variety of applications by targeting certain genes for certain traits. Once identified, an enzyme produced by CRISPR called Cas9 binds to these genes and shuts them off.
Using CRISPR, engineers can breed plants to enhance their shelf life, taste better, or to increase their resilience in the face of ongoing environmental pressures. Already in the works are extra sweet strawberries, white button mushrooms that don’t brown, better tasting tomatoes, and drought-resistant corn.
“Plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional value and eliminating allergens,” said Perdue. “Using this science, farmers can continue to meet consumer expectations for healthful, affordable food produced in a manner that consumes fewer natural resources. This innovation will help farmers do what we aspire to do at USDA: do right and feed everyone.”
It comes after the FDA announced guidance early last year regarding animals whose genomes had been intentionally altered. The new rules classified them as an “animal drug”, requiring a regulatory process similar to that for new pharmaceutical drugs.
Neither the USDA nor the US Food and Drug Agency have released guidance for how these gene-edited plants might be edited or labeled.