GMO 2.0: A New Kind of Modified Food

May 5, 2017

America has barely gotten a handle on how to deal with the kinds of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that have been around for decades.

Now, a new kind of GMO is available in grocery stores, and regulators are divided on how to approach it.

The new technologies—which have gained traction in the past five years—are different from the genetic modification that is commonly used. They are more precise, and scientists say they pose a lower risk of causing unintended changes to the DNA. But they are the same in that they artificially change the DNA of organisms.

They go by many different names, often eluding the notice of a public wary of GMOs. Crispr-Cas9 and Talen are the names of two specific technologies, for example, and “new plant breeding techniques” or “gene editing” are a couple of the broad terms being used.

Currently, about 5 percent of U.S. canola is grown from seeds modified with one of these new technologies, and companies are poised to commercially launch new products within the next year or two. Corn, soybean, flax, and other food crops will be created with the new techniques.

Officials in the United States and abroad have established some regulations for GMOs. But, by and large, these new techniques are not subject to those regulations. This is because the definitions of what constitutes a GMO vary among regulatory bodies and often do not cover these new technologies.

Proponents say these products should not be considered GMOs because of key advancements in the technologies. Opponents say modifying genes is genetic modification, no matter how you slice it—and it should be regulated as such.

How It Works

Both traditional and new genetic engineering technologies have variations and complexities, but generally speaking, the difference is as follows.

The older techniques create plants with desirable traits by clumsily forcing genes from different species into the plants’ DNA. For example, a gene can be taken from a bacterium and inserted into a corn plant’s DNA to make the plant resistant to pests. Another commercially available product is a soybean that has a gene from a bacterium that makes it herbicide-resistant.

The new techniques, on the other hand, can target the desired genes more precisely and change them without including foreign DNA.

The former technique creates something that would never be found in nature—DNA from a bacterium would not naturally enter the DNA of a plant. The latter creates something that, proponents argue, could possibly develop in nature or through age-old breeding techniques over a long period of time.

It essentially uses molecular machinery created in a lab to snip and bond a plant’s DNA, removing undesired genes or creating new combinations. For example, Minnesota-based biotech company Calyxt has removed the gene in a potato responsible for the degradation of sugars, thus giving the potato a longer shelf life. Some scientists and consumer advocacy groups have expressed concern that this manipulation may still create unintended effects and should be further tested and regulated like any other GMO.

Some regulators agree, some don’t. How they define GMO makes all the difference.

Regulation That Includes New Techniques

In Marin County, California, an ordinance called Measure B was passed in 2004 banning GMO cultivation.

“At the time the ordinance was written and voted upon by the residents, it blanketed all modification,” said Stacy Carlsen, Marin County agricultural commissioner, via email. “This GMO technique (Crispr-Cas9) would be prohibited as defined in the current ordinance. The technique is gene modification.”

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) voted in November to prohibit the new techniques from being used in any organic production nationwide.

“It is more imperative than ever that the organic community be very clear about where the line is drawn regarding genetic engineering,” the board noted in its formal recommendation.

“Every organic stakeholder is clear that genetic engineering is an imminent threat to organic integrity. The NOSB must make, to the extent it can, every effort to protect that integrity.”

The board clarified that it defines GMO as any organism that has had its genetic material altered by biotechnology.

But the hallmark federal GMO legislation passed last year has a more specific definition, which does not apply to plants created using the new techniques. That law will require traditional food GMOs to be labeled with QR codes that consumers can check with their smartphones.

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