WASHINGTON, May 6, 2015 – While activist groups and food companies duke it out over labeling GMO foods and public acceptance issues, biotech companies are moving on to new methods of improving crop traits.

The next generation of plant technology – gene editing – includes more precise ways to produce desired plant traits, but doesn’t necessarily result in a genetically modified organism (GMO), and thus may avoid USDA regulation.

The term GMO is often used to describe transgenic plants that are made by introducing foreign DNA into an organism in order to achieve a desired trait, such as resistance to drought or certain insects or chemical products. However, gene editing techniques can alter an organism’s DNA without inserting a new gene that is expressed in the final product.

For example, San Diego-based Cibus is marketing its gene editing technique as the most precise available -- and one that produces a completely non-GMO (or non-transgenic) product. Using what it calls the Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS), Cibus “takes advantage of the natural repair system of a cell,” said Greg Gocal, the company’s senior vice president of research and development. In an interview with Agri-Pulse, he described the method as “making spelling changes” in the organism’s DNA.

Cibus’ non-transgenic herbicide-resistant canola is now available on the U.S. market. Cargill has been conducting field tests over the past year with the product and plans to it to fill demand for non-GMO canola oil.

USDA told Cibus, after the company submitted a dossier of information about its technology to the agency in 2004, products developed through RTDS would not have to go through its regulatory process. 

The European Union, which is far stricter than the U.S. in its regulation of genetically engineered products, is considering how to deal with this new technology, currently leaving decisions up to member countries. So far, “no country considers our products transgenic,” Gocal said. 

Large seed and chemical makers like Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta are investing in gene editing systems. Even if these techniques result in a product that is technically transgenic, USDA only has authority over products in which a plant pest such as certain bacterium is used in the editing process, or which results in a potential plant pest itself.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) – responsible for protecting U.S. agriculture from pests and diseases – has categorized several new crops developed through gene editing as not subject to its regulation. These include products from Scotts Miracle-Gro, Dow AgroSciences, Ceres, and Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. Some products may also be subject to regulation by EPA and the Food and Drug Administration.

Last year, USDA approved a non-transgenic potato developed by Cellectis Plant Sciences. The Minnesota-based company used the gene editing technique known as TALEN to knock-out certain genes, creating a potato with reduced acrylamide, a possible carcinogen.

Cellectis used a bacterium in its gene editing process, but the final product does not contain any new genetic material, a distinction that places it outside USDA’s jurisdiction. “Although plant pests were used to create the potato product, the potato plant regenerated from the GE potato cells no longer contains the introduced genetic material,” according to APHIS.

A similar potato that gained much more public attention is the transgenic (GMO) Innate potato, which USDA deregulated last year. However, J.R. Simplot Co. used an agrobacterium to transfer genes from other potato varieties, a process which falls under the agency’s regulatory review. This means Simplot had to provide data for USDA to conduct an environmental assessment and wait for the agency’s review and approval before introducing its product on the market.

The fine line between the Innate and Cellectis potatoes shows how complicated the science and regulatory system can be, especially to consumers who are trying to figure out what GMOs are and what they mean for their diets.  

Opponents of genetic modification say the regulatory policy is flawed and allows companies to push products to the market without proper oversight. During a National Research Council seminar on genetically engineered (GE) crop safety last month, some commenters said the Council needs to focus more intently on reviewing the newest forms of plant technology.

“You can’t seriously look at the future of GE and not take on…gene editing and other technologies,” said Margaret Mellon, a former senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Greg Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said although gene editing is safe and effective, public confidence in food products developed with the technique and transgenics would improve if USDA expanded its oversight. “If the regulatory system is not a risk-based system, I think the public will lose confidence,” he said. Jaffe said the council should look into whether there is a scientific basis for not regulating these gene edited products.

In the meantime, the industry will continue to invest in gene editing technology, which is considerably faster than conventional breeding and less expensive than transgenic approaches.


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