representation of gene editing PhonlamaiPhoto/Getty Images
GENE EDITING: This image is a representation — gene editing doesn’t really work this way. It’s precise, fast and offers a range of plant breeding benefits; but Europe has decided gene editing is a GMO. That’s going to be a problem in the future.

An editing mistake

Another Voice: European Court of Justice makes a bad decision on gene editing.

I’m not pulling punches here. The European Court of Justice recent ruling on gene editing technology is a mistake pure and simple. Swayed by the fear-mongering, anti-GMO crowd with little or no knowledge about how plant breeding really works, the court ruled that gene editing is a GMO.

That decision will require that every product that uses this latest advanced breeding tool will have to go through the same convoluted, politicized, trade-slowing process that has victimized every past and current transgenic product. This isn’t resetting the clock, this is resetting the calendar. Let me explain.

Gene editing is powerful stuff. You can use tools to turn on, and off, key traits in a plant. But we’ve been doing that for generations through cross-breeding and mutagenesis. So let me step back and discuss mutagenesis.

In this process, plants are subjected to a range of unique stresses, perhaps a strong chemical or even radiation (one of the most popular strains of sweet corn was discovered by hitting one strain with radiation from cobalt). Then, mutant genes that express the specific trait are discovered and through several plant generations, are refined and back-crossed into commercial varieties.

This mutagenesis process is just what it sounds like. Slam the plant with a negative stimulus to force the genes in the plant to move or change or shift in new ways. Then, that breeding or back-crossing process can take years. That’s years of in-field work, where you spend money on inputs, land, seed, labor, equipment.

With gene editing, you can achieve a much more targeted result in a single generation. One year, no extra inputs, labor, seed or land. Thanks to Kevin Folta for helping fine-tune this explanation for me. Folta is a plant breeder at the University of Florida and has his own “Talking Biotech” podcast.

Regulating gene editing
USDA has already ruled that gene editing is a form of advanced plant breeding and does not need to be subjected to the same regulations as transgenic crops. The key word being “transgenic” — which means bringing foreign DNA into a plant.

For example, the glyphosate-tolerant trait was manipulated into plants from a different source; it was not from genes native to the plant. With gene editing, it may someday be possible to achieve herbicide tolerance within the plant genome; but for now, that must come from outside genetics.

And those are regulated by USDA, EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Gene editing can have harmful impacts and should be regulated to a degree against those problems; but as a rule, the changes are about turning off a trait or turning it on. Pioneer, the seed giant, is working on a waxy corn using gene editing. The idea is to get the benefits of waxy corn, but in a plant that’s a higher-yielding crop without some of the negative issues found in traditional waxy corn.

The ECJ ruling in Europe was enough to get a response even from USDA, when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue commented in a statement: “Government policies should encourage scientific innovation without creating unnecessary barriers or unjustifiably stigmatizing new technologies. Unfortunately, [the] ECJ ruling is a setback in this regard, in that it narrowly considers newer genome editing methods to be within the scope of the European Union’s regressive and outdated regulations governing genetically modified organisms.”

We are at the beginning of this technology. In the 25 years that I’ve been covering molecular biology and genetic modification, I’ve seen companies get extremely precise. Gene editing tools are advancing fast and do raise questions — especially for livestock and humans. But for plants, at the end of the day, corn is corn. If there’s a trait change that makes it not corn, then it would not pass muster with regulators. Pretty simple.

And faster trait advancement to boost yield, manage water, improve nitrogen use or any other benefit you might think of, has value. While there are some that downgrade the “feeding the 9 billion by 2050” driver, we still must overcome weather and make better use of the inputs we invest in for every crop. These tools do that.

Now if only the Europeans would open their eyes. I find it hard to believe their farmers are against the tools; but you hear little from them about it. Go figure.

 

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