Crispr’d Food, Coming Soon to a Supermarket Near You
For years now, the US Department of Agriculture has been flirting with the latest and greatest DNA manipulation technologies. Since 2016, it has given free passes to at least a dozen gene-edited crops, ruling that they fall outside its regulatory purview. But on Wednesday, March 28, the agency made its relationship status official; effective immediately, certain gene-edited plants can be designed, cultivated, and sold free from regulation. “With this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.
The agency’s logic goes like this: Gene editing is basically a (much, much, much) faster form of breeding. So long as a genetic alteration could have been bred in a plant—say a simple deletion, base pair swap, or insertion from a reproductively compatible relative—it won’t be regulated. Think, changes that create immunity to diseases, hardiness under tough weather conditions, or bigger, better, tastier fruits and seeds. If you want to stick in genes from distant species, you still have to jump through all the hoops….
So how will you know if the contents of a future salad has had a few As, Ts, Cs, and Gs moved around by a bacterial enzyme-wielding scientist? Well, you might not. Neither the USDA nor the US Food and Drug Agency has yet issued guidance specific to the the labeling of foods derived from gene-edited plants. According to an FDA spokesperson, the agency is considering public comments on whether these types of foods pose additional risks. But it couldn’t provide a timeline for any new policies. The USDA is supposed to have its own product disclosure rules finalized by July—a proposal is currently under review with the Office of Management and Budget….