WASHINGTON, April 20, 2016 - USDA’s milestone decisions not to regulate crops developed with the popular new CRISPR gene-editing technique are raising hopes for companies looking to get new crop traits to market in less time and with less public controversy. But left unsettled is the question of whether crops produced through gene editing may have to be labeled as GMO. And whether there will be a consumer backlash, if they’re not.

The biotech crop traits now on the market have typically required inserting genes from another species, a bacterium, into a plant to give it characteristics such as herbicide tolerance or insect resistance. By contrast, the new techniques simply edit the plant’s own genome. USDA is exempting products developed with the CRISPR technology from its normal regulatory process for biotechnology. The first such exemption was granted last week, for a mushroom, and on Monday asecond exemption was granted to DuPont Pioneer for a new corn trait.>

The new question for policy makers at both the federal and state level is whether those new crops would fall under GMO labeling requirements. So far, the answer is no. But that could change, and some observers believe that consumer trust will be at risk if companies only disclose the presence of transgenic crops.

The biotech disclosure bill now stalled in the Senate would restrict the definition of “bioengineered” foods for purposes of on-package or electronic labeling to transgenic crops. Transgenic crops also are the target of Vermont’s labeling law, which takes effect in July. Campbell Soup Co., which in January became the first major food company to announce that it was going to label biotech ingredients, is limiting the disclosure to transgenics as well, said Kelly Johnston, Campbell’s vice president of government affairs.

“The issue that’s got consumers motivated is that you’re transferring tissue from one organism into another. You’re crossing species. That’s what gets the dander up. That’s the definition that we’re using,” Johnston said.

But a mandatory labeling bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., would require FDA to define what types of genetic engineering would require disclosure, and a labeling bill moving through the Massachusetts legislature would require labeling for gene-edited products, making the legislation more expansive than the Vermont law. (Connecticut and Maine have labeling laws on the books that take effect only when other states enact such requirements. Both laws track Vermont’s definition.)

Federal agencies also may soon have different definitions for biotechnology. Voluntary labeling guidance issued by FDA in November uses a traditional, internationally accepted definition of genetic engineering. However, USDA has proposed a broad new definition of biotechnology for its regulatory purposes that would cover all engineering techniques, including gene editing. (The definition doesn’t apply to labeling, and USDA could still exempt gene editing from regulation. But the broad definition itself has raised concerns in the industry because of its future implications.)

Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture and senior scientist for the advocacy group Center for Food Safety, said the FDA definition use of the terms in vitro nucleic acid techniques and recombinant DNA makes it expansive enough to include genome editing. “I see nothing in that definition that limits this to transgenic applications,” he said. 

Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association, said at a recent Consumer Federation of America policy conference that it would be “foolhardy… in terms of building trust” with consumers for the food industry to define biotechnology narrowly. “It’s been interesting to watch the debate shift at the policy level from ‘Should we label?’ to ‘What actually constitutes GMO and therefore would require labeling?’ ” she said.

Charlie Arnot, the founder of CMA Consulting, emphasizes that it’s critical for consumers to see the industry as transparent. But Arnot said consumers seem to be more concerned about transgenics than other biotech products “based on a perception that it is unnatural.”

There’s still time, he said, to “define gene editing in a way that is less controversial and polarizing than transgenic modification, but the window of opportunity won’t last forever, and will be impacted by how transparent and engaged technology companies are in the public discussion of the issue.”

The definition of biotechnology isn’t the only issue being debated as states pursue GMO labeling requirements, according to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. Under Vermont’s law, processed food that contains less than 75 percent genetically engineered material by weight may be labeled "Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering."  Under the Connecticut law, the only wording allowed is "Produced with Genetic Engineering."  There also are differences in the font size that must be used on labels, as well as what products are covered. Vermont exempts dietary supplements, while Connecticut and Maine exempt non-alcoholic beverages. Connecticut also exempts products sold at a farmers market. Vermont and Maine don’t. Connecticut and Vermont also exempt BST-treated milk products. Maine doesn’t.


For more news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com