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August 13, 2018 | Patti Mulligan

A researcher holds a canola sample at the headquarters of Calyxt in Roseville, Minn., on July 12. Credits: Tim Gruber; Washington Post

A researcher holds a canola sample at the headquarters of Calyxt in Roseville, Minn., on July 12. Credits: Tim Gruber; Washington Post

By: Caitlin Dewey, AUGUST 11, 2018


The risks of an off-target edit

But even as gene editing accelerates, some consumer and environmental groups have begun to fear that the field has outpaced regulators. Advocates and critics alike agree that the 30-year-old legal framework for vetting genetically modified crops has failed to keep pace with innovations such as CRISPR and ­TALENs.

Under current rules, the Agriculture Department does not require field tests or environmental assessments for many of these crops, the way it does for most conventional genetically modified organisms. That’s because most of the gene-edited crops to date, such as Calyxt’s soybean, do not contain foreign genetic material and were not made using the bacteria or viruses that scientists employed in the first-generation GMOs. The agency has said its authority extends only to those methods, because it’s charged with protecting plants from infections and pests. In late July, Europe’s top court came to the opposite conclusion, ruling that gene-edited crops should adhere to the same strict regulations as genetically modified organisms.

The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, does monitor the food safety and nutrition of gene-edited foods — but only if the food-maker requests a consultation. Calyxt has made no such request, according to the FDA. The agency is evaluating whether gene-edited foods carry additional safety risks.

Such evaluations are needed, said Jennifer Kuzma, a professor of genetic engineering and society at North Carolina State University, to reassure consumers that gene-edited food is safe. Of particular concern is a type of genetic glitch called an off-target edit, or an inadvertent change to a plant’s DNA.

These glitches occur both in the lab and in nature but rarely escape breeders’ notice, said Jeff Wolt, a recently retired professor of agronomy and toxicology at Iowa State University. If they did, however, the effects could prove dramatic: preventing growth, introducing allergens and toxins, or exposing the plant to disease. Plant researchers learned this the hard way in the late 1960s, when they developed a better frying potato that also inflicted severe nausea on anyone who ate it.

“We need a mandatory regulatory process: not just for scientific reasons, but for consumer and public confidence,” Kuzma said. “I think the vast majority of gene-edited foods are going to be as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts. But I don’t buy into the argument that’s true all the time for every crop.”

Read the full article at The Washington Post


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