The USDA has announced it won't be regulating "new GM" products – but its statement is at odds with the scientific facts
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a statement to provide "clarification" on the department's "oversight of plants produced through innovative new breeding techniques which include techniques called genome editing".
However, while the statement certainly makes clear the USDA's attitude to new GM techniques, when it comes to the scientific facts, it offers only smoke and mirrors.
The USDA says, "Under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests. This includes a set of new techniques that are increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods."
The USDA's statement reflects the fact that the US has never regulated GMO plants on the basis that they are GMO. It ignores the inherent uncertainties and imprecise aspects of the technology and only focuses on certain aspects of the end product: namely, if the GMO is, or involves the use of, a plant pest; or if it could prove to be a noxious weed; or if it is a pesticide in itself, such as GMO Bt insecticidal crops. Only if any of these boxes are ticked do the US regulatory authorities apply some regulation (however weak) to GM plants.
It is this inadequate framework that the USDA is referring to in order to justify looking the other way when it comes to risks posed by new genome-edited products.
However, the USDA is straying far from the evidence when it claims that these products are "indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods". At best this claim is an untested hypothesis; at worst it is dishonest and unscientific. No one has ever proven that such plants are indistinguishable from naturally bred plants and it is highly unlikely that anyone ever will.
This is because the genome editing process is not precise or predictable but on the contrary is highly prone to off-target effects. That's a worry for consumers because these off-target effects could lead to altered biochemistry within the plant, which could in turn lead to the production of unexpected toxins or allergens. Plus all genome-edited plants are produced using tissue culture, which is highly mutagenic and will add to the uncertainties inherent in the genome-editing process.
So if a genome-edited plant and a naturally occurring plant that appears to have the same trait are subjected to whole genome sequencing and molecular analysis, it's pretty much guaranteed that they will be different. It's also likely that they will have different biological effects on the consumer.
Patents and lies
If by some miracle the USDA should turn out to be correct when it claims that genome-edited plants are indistinguishable from naturally bred plants, then the whole genome-editing commercial venture is over. That's because the driving force behind all genetic engineering of plants, including genome editing, is patents. And to get a patent on a genome-edited plant you have to show that it is a man-made invention that is completely different from anything that you might find in nature.
Therefore the GMO industry is telling the public and regulators that genome-edited plants are indistinguishable from naturally bred plants, and yet at the same time it is telling patent offices that genome-edited plants are completely different from naturally bred plants.
Both claims cannot be true. So one is a lie. There are no prizes for guessing which one.
Genome-editing techniques are genetic engineering
Given the above facts, calling genome-editing techniques "new breeding techniques", as the USDA does, is a misnomer. These techniques are genetic engineering methods and must be regulated as such.
The regulation must be process-based, not just product-based. In other words, it must take account of the fact that these techniques, contrary to what the USDA claims in its press release, are still imprecise and the outcomes are not completely predictable or controllable.
According to the London-based molecular geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou, “Ignoring the process by which genome-edited crops are generated and focusing on only the intended trait ("product-based regulation") is unscientific. It's equivalent to publishing a scientific paper on an experiment without describing the ‘materials and methods’ by which the experimental results were produced. This would be ridiculous.
“The procedures by which an experiment is conducted are the cornerstone of the scientific method. Any arguments to the contrary are ignoring this fact. Furthermore, if regulators fail to take the genome-editing methods into account, they set themselves up to miss the acknowledged unintended off-target effects of the procedure. That could have implications for health and the environment.”
Product-based regulation such as the US applies to old-style GM and new genome-edited plants is analogous to flying a plane blindfolded. Because the system is blind to dangers, the US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is able to claim in the USDA's statement that "there is no risk present" in genome-edited crops.
More on Perdue
Perdue is a fitting candidate to utter unscientific talking points that only benefit the GMO industry. The former governor of Georgia, he was named 2009 Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and counts Monsanto and Coca-Cola among his corporate campaign donors. His nomination was praised by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), that multi-billion-dollar lobbying group that represents Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Coca-Cola, General Mills and that fought against transparent GMO labelling.
Perdue helped the giant chicken-producing factory farm business expand its Georgia operations by $155 million. A former fertilizer salesman, Perdue at one time owned Houston Fertilizer and Grain, which morphed into AGrowStar, a grain business with operations across Georgia and South Carolina. His supporters cite his business operations as proof that he’s qualified to lead the USDA.
But according to the Organic Consumers Association's associate director Katherine Paul, they fail to mention the role chemical fertilizers play in water pollution and global warming, much less the cost to farmers of relying on synthetic inputs instead of regenerative practices which rely on organic composting and that improve crop yields and soil health without the polluting effects.
"New GM" products
Products produced using so-called "new GM" techniques include:
* Cibus's herbicide-tolerant canola, produced using ODM (oligonucleotide directed mutagenesis), which is already being grown in North America
* A non-browning mushroom, which has been deregulated by the USDA but not yet commercialized
* Calyxt's high oleic soybeans and reduced browning/storable potatoes, not yet commercialized.
In light of the US authorities' dereliction of their duty to protect public health and the environment, Americans who want to avoid eating experimental genome-edited crops should seek out foods bearing organic and Non-GMO Project labels. The Non-GMO Project has already stated that genome-edited products will not qualify for its Non-GMO label.
Report: Claire Robinson