CRISPR Can Officially Be Used To Modify Plant Foods, USDA Says

The announcement comes a week after scientists retracted a study suggesting CRISPR is dangerous. Beykov Maksim/Shutterstock

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

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