In recent months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has indicated that several genetically engineered crops do not count as “regulatory articles.” The USDA, reported the New York Times, declined to regulate “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.” In each case, the genetically engineered crop was produced by gene editing rather than the insertion of foreign genes, that is, genes from another species. (Genes from bacteria, for example, were used to create Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant “Roundup Ready” products.) The newer gene-editing techniques—and even more subtle epigenetic techniques—would appear to circumvent existing regulatory rules, encouraging industry and troubling many environmental and consumer advocates.
Should crops created via gene-editing techniques continue to enjoy regulatory forbearance?
This development shows the futility of trying to regulate genetically modified organisms. Would-be regulators should recognize that genetic engineering techniques are no more to be feared than conventional techniques such as hybridization.
Gene-editing techniques are rather more conservative than cross-species transgenic approaches. Accordingly, a more permissive regulatory stance is appropriate, at least until any evidence of risk materializes.
The possibility that gene-editing techniques may pose environmental risks of their own should be taken seriously. Regulators should control the deployment of gene-edited crops until the safety of these crops can be demonstrated.
This is just a regulatory loophole that should never have been permitted. This episode shows that existing regulations, in addition to being extended to gene-editing, should be strengthened for all genetic engineering approaches.