Genetic Engineering of Food Plants

Interesting article from NYT about how companies are changing the ways that they modify plant genetics for commercial use.  These new methods often do not require USDA review or approval:

… several … companies are developing genetically modified crops using techniques that either are outside the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department or use new methods — like “genome editing” — that were not envisioned when the regulations were created.

The department has said, for example, that it has no authority over a new herbicide-resistant canola, a corn that would create less pollution from livestock waste, switch grass tailored for biofuel production, and even an ornamental plant that glows in the dark.

The trend alarms critics of biotech crops, who say genetic modification can have unintended effects, regardless of the process.

“They are using a technical loophole so that what are clearly genetically engineered crops and organisms are escaping regulation,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union. He said the grass “can have all sorts of ecological impact and no one is required to look at it.”

I’m sure Mr. Hansen is correct.  That is, there will be unknown impacts due to these plants that are new to our environment.  We see this now, not only with genetic engineering, but also with many kinds of invasive species that are native to other parts of the world.

Another interesting point:

…companies using the new techniques say that if the methods were not labeled genetic engineering, novel crops could be marketed or grown in Europe and other countries that do not readily accept genetically modified crops.

The change is that instead of bringing in new and entirely different DNA from some outside organism using bacteria or viruses, the scientists are directly changing the DNA in the original plant, or bringing in DNA from other plants.  They are not using bacteria or viruses to deliver the DNA, either.

Those in favor of the new methods say that it just speeds up the oldest way of changing organisms:

Some researchers argue that using genome editing to inactivate a gene in a plant, or to make a tiny change in an existing gene, results in a crop no different from what could be obtained through natural mutations and conventional breeding, though it is achieved more quickly.

“Those are basically comparable to what you get from conventional breeding,” said Neal Gutterson, vice president for agricultural biotechnology at DuPont Pioneer, a seed company. “We certainly hope that the regulatory agencies recognize that and treat the products accordingly.”

Can’t wait to learn more about this.

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