Biotech blog: USDA should establish a science-based regulatory system to address genetically engineered and gene-edited crops

Last changed: 18 May 2017

Center for Science in the Public Interest

Selected news 
by Mistra Biotech

"The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been regulating genetically engineered (GE) crops to ensure that they are not harmful to our agricultural system for over 20 years.  USDA regulates those crops based primarily on the technique used to introduce the new gene, and its oversight is not proportional to the potential risk of the introduced trait.  More recently, it has applied that same system to gene-edited crops."

"USDA’s regulatory system for GE crops is based on its legal authority to manage “plant pests” under the Plant Protection Act.  USDA has identified a list of plant pests, which are organisms that can harm our agricultural system.  Under USDA’s current regulations, a GE crop is considered a “potential” plant pest if any of its newly introduced DNA came from an organism on USDA’s list of plant pests, or if the method of introducing DNA into the crop’s genome involved an organism on USDA’s list of plant pests.  For example, if a GE crop is developed using Agrobacterium-mediated transformation to introduce new DNA, it is regulated.  However, if the same DNA is introduced using the gene-gun method of transformation, USDA does not regulate the crop—the difference being the use of Agrobacterium, which is a recognized plant pest.  

The current regulatory system leads to the common misunderstanding that USDA determines the safety of all GE plants.  In fact, in 2016 and 2017 USDA determined that it had no legal basis to regulate at least four GE plants with foreign genes (including corn and sorghum), while other GE crops—some with genes introduced solely from within the same species (such as the non-browning potatoes)—did require regulation.  USDA’s current system could be wasting resources by potentially over-regulating some GE crops developed using Agrobacterium while under-regulating GE varieties created using a gene gun."Greg Jaffe 15/5


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