In a letter released to the public on Monday, chemical giant DuPoint Pioneer announced plans to market the first crop that uses a type of precise genetic modification called CRISPR-Cas 9.
DuPont is the fourth-largest chemical corporation in the world, and it wants to see the product — a hybrid type of corn — in farmers’ fields as early as 2021.
“We’re applying our 90 years of knowledge of corn biology to develop the next generation of high-quality waxy corn hybrids for the benefit of the entire value chain from growers to processors and end users,” DuPont Pioneer vice president of research and development Neal Gutterson said in a statement.
The USDA has said that it will not subject the CRISPR corn to the same rules as traditional GMOs.
In response to Pioneer’s “Regulated Article Letter of Inquiry,” about the new product, the USDA said that it does not consider the CRISPR corn “as regulated by USDA Biotechnology Regulatory Services.”
This comes on the heels of a letter released last week in which the US Department of Agriculture said that it wouldn’t regulate a mushroom that had been gene-edited with the same type of CRISPR technology. (In its case, the genetic tweaks helped keep the mushroom from turning brown.)
Like with the corn, this approach is widely different from the one the USDA has previously taken with traditional GMOs, which are regulated by the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). APHIS keeps an eye on new genetically modified organisms that “may pose a risk to plant health.”
But unlike the mushroom, which was created by researchers at Penn State with no plans to bring the product to market, the corn would ideally be on grocery store shelves in the next few years.
“The next generation of waxy hybrids developed with CRISPR-Cas will represent a step-change in how efficiently we bring elite genetic platforms of high-yielding waxy corn to our customers,” said Gutterson.
At its essence, CRISPR is a far more accurate method of modifying genes than scientists have had access to before.
At the center of the agency’s decision not to subject the new crop to its rules is the fact that the CRISPR-edited crops don’t contain any “introduced genetic material” or foreign DNA, and so would not be a threat to other plants.
This is the focus of a lot of the policy surrounding GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. Because GMO crops are tweaked in a lab to contain harmless DNA from other organisms, like bacteria, which help make them more resistant to things like drought or pests, they are regulated by the USDA.
In its letter, the agency says firmly that the CRISPR-edited mushroom doesn’t pose a risk to plant health, and so doesn’t need to be regulated:
APHIS has no reason to believe that CRISPR/Cas-9-edited white button mushrooms are plant pests. Therefore, consistent with previous responses to similar letters of inquiry, APHIS does not consider CRISPR/Cas-9-edited white button mushrooms … to be regulated.
A world of CRISPR crops?
This could be the shape of things to come.
“If USDA decides the first product does not require regulation, that would definitely be encouraging for the many people already using CRISPR,” Joyce Van Eck, an assistant professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute, told the Genetic Expert News Service last week.
Many researchers are currently looking into developing CRISPR food products.
Maywa Montenegro wrote for environmental-news site Ensia in January:
Since its 2013 demonstration as a genome editing tool in Arabidopsis and tobacco — two widely used laboratory plants — CRISPR has been road-tested in crops, including wheat, rice, soybeans, potatoes, sorghum, oranges and tomatoes. By the end of 2014, a flood of research into agricultural uses for CRISPR included a spectrum of applications, from boosting crop resistance to pests to reducing the toll of livestock disease.
This could be good news given Americans’ hefty — though scientifically unfounded — opposition to GMOs. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the European Commission all have said that traditional GMO foods are safe to eat. A large scientific study from 2013 found no “significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.” But CRISPR crops won’t be traditional GMOs. And perhaps they will start to change people’s minds about the future of food.