The USDA’s deregulation of J.R. Simplot’s genetically engineered potatoes recently generated much publicity, but another biotech potato was quietly cleared for commercialization without undergoing that regulatory process.
Cellectis Plant Sciences, a subsidiary of a French pharmaceutical company, has genetically modified potatoes to experience less sugar buildup during cold storage, thereby helping to preserve their quality. The crop also contains less of a potentially cancer-causing compound.
These traits are similar to Simplot’s “Innate” potato but Cellectis’ product wasn’t subject to the same environmental assessments and public notice and comment requirements.
The difference is that Simplot used agrobacterium, a plant pest, to transfer genes from wild and cultivated potatoes, which causes the Innate variety to fall under USDA’s regulatory purview.
Under the USDA’s interpretation of federal law, which has been upheld in court, the agency’s authority over genetically engineered crops is limited to those that are potential plant pests.
In the case of Cellectis’ potato, the company did rely on a protein from a blight-causing bacteria to remove unwanted genetic material from the variety.
However, that bacterial protein wasn’t incorporated into the potato’s genes, which convinced the USDA that the variety isn’t a plant pest and doesn’t require a permit for field release or interstate movement, according to documents recently released by the agency.
“We knocked out DNA sequences that inactivated a gene,” said Dan Voytas, chief science officer for Cellectis.
Cellectis hopes the variety will gain broader market acceptance than previous genetically engineered varieties that were deregulated by USDA because the technology simply removes genetic material, rather than inserting it from other species, he said.
Roughly 10-15 percent of potatoes are lost during storage due to sugar buildup, and the company hopes to significantly cut that waste, Voytas said.
Before it can make actual claims about waste reduction, Cellectis must first conduct large-scale tests that are now possible due to USDA’s decision, he said.
The company expects it will take several years before enough of its potatoes are available for commercial production, and it still plans to clear the variety with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, he said.
Also, Cellectis will seek regulatory approval in foreign countries that import U.S. potatoes, Voytas said. “There’s still quite a bit of effort in front of us.”
The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit that’s critical of genetic engineering, is nervous about the USDA’s position on the Cellectis potatoes.
“I think it’s really jumping the gun for the USDA to be removing it from regulatory oversight,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture for the group. “This speaks to real irresponsibility by the agency.”
Scientists still don’t fully understand the unintended consequences of gene editing, so it’s inappropriate for regulators to give such a crop a “clean bill of health” without further study, he said.
The USDA basically washes its hands of regulating any biotech crop that’s not a plant pest, which is defined very narrowly by the agency, Gurian-Sherman said.
The agency could expand its oversight over biotech crops under its statutory power to regulate noxious weeds but it choses not to, he said. “That, to me, is shirking its responsibility to protect the public and the environment.”