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Public opinion, government regulation will shape use of gene editing technique in farming

by Carolyn Orr ~ August 2017 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Consumers have welcomed technology in all parts of their life — except not always when it comes to the food that they eat. For many farmers, this vocal opposition to products made with genetically modified corn or soybeans (or GMOs) has been difficult to accept.
But now a new form of selective breeding is here, and one looming question for the Midwest's agricultural producers is whether it will be more widely accepted by the public. The technology is known as “CRISPR,” a gene editing technique that can reduce the cycle of plant breeding from decades to five years. And it is based on native genetic sequences rather than the transgenic material used in GMOs.
“Researchers are moving forward cautiously, as all the wonderful technology from previous methods of transgenic manipulation was not fully realized due to public pushback,” Jeff Wolt, a professor of risk and policy analysis at Iowa State University, told lawmakers who attended a July session of the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture Committee.
CRISPR’s impact on agriculture, in the Midwest and around the world, could be revolutionary — increasing a crop’s temperature tolerance, reducing the need for inputs, eliminating mycotoxins, and making it tastier or healthier to eat.
At the University of Minnesota, for example, researchers are using CRISPR to reduce the carcinogenic compounds found in potatoes, and to prevent them from browning when cut. CRISPR could transform animal agriculture as well. Already in Minnesota, a company has edited the genes of Holstein cattle to produce polled (hornless) calves.
“We need to ensure that what we are doing [with CRISPR-related research] is well-communicated and transparent,” Wolt said.
Consumer acceptance is one factor that will determine the future of this new technology in agriculture; another is government regulation. Minus any new legislation from the U.S. Congress, rulemaking responsibilities will be split mainly among two agencies.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has authority over plants and seeds, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority over foods derived from those plants,” expained Jane DeMarchi, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Seed Trade Association.
According to Wolt, only breeding methods that include “synthetic or foreign DNA” have been subject to regulation in the past. But the USDA has begun to shift its regulatory focus from “genetically engineered crops” to “products of biotechnology,” while the FDA is reviewing public comment on how it should regulate gene-edited foods.
For now, it is unclear whether CRISPR products will require additional regulation. Last year, the USDA decided not to regulate a mushroom and a corn crop that were gene-edited with naturally occurring genes. On the other hand, in January, the FDA proposed that all intentionally altered animals would be regulated as a “new animal drug” and deemed unsafe unless approved.


Article written by Carolyn Orr, staff liaison to the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.