Canola field

Canola grows in a field. A new test for gene-edited canola that’s resistant to certain herbicides has unclear regulatory implications.

A new test method that detects a gene-edited canola cultivar has raised the possibility that other crops developed through similar techniques can also be identified.

The regulatory implications of the new test method appear to be a point of contention in the broader debate over biotechnology.

Critics of USDA’s biotech oversight say the new test indicates gene-edited canola and similar crops are subject to labeling requirements for “bioengineered foods.”

“If you can detect them, you can also regulate them,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit critical of U.S. labeling regulations.

However, the crop’s developer believes the test method will not bring the canola cultivar under the umbrella of “genetically modified organisms” or require labeling of the crop.

“I don’t see the test as an issue at all. It helps show the transparency of what we’re doing,” said Greg Gocal, chief scientific officer of Cibus, a biotech company that developed the herbicide-tolerant canola.

Compared to traditional genetic engineering, in which foreign genes are inserted into a crop’s DNA, gene editing relies on removing or changing gene sequences without using outside genetic material.

Greenpeace and other nonprofit groups developed the new procedure to detect the canola strain, which can withstand sulfonylurea herbicides, so that it can be stopped from entering the European food supply.

Freese, of the Center for Food Safety, said in the U.S., the detectability of the gene-edited canola means that it falls under the USDA’s own criteria for labeling bioengineered foods.

Similarly, other gene-edited crops that enter commerce would also come under labeling requirements if they’re identifiable, he said. “Using the same method, you could develop tests for other crops.”

Biotech companies have typically argued that gene-edited crops are indistinguishable from their conventional counterparts, and thus cannot be regulated differently, Freese said.

With the new testing method, the canola cultivar and similar crops should be labeled by food companies because they can be differentiated, he said.

“They need to be on notice this is the case and they could be liable if they don’t follow the labeling law,” Freese said.

Gocal, of Cibus, said the company has commercialized a canola cultivar that’s herbicide-resistant due to a natural mutation but is otherwise identical to the gene-edited variety.

“We haven’t commercialized the gene-edited version of this trait but the mutations are the exact same as the one we have commercialized,” Gocal said.

Regardless of this distinction, USDA’s labeling requirements do not cover gene-edited crops, he said.

The world has a growing population but a shrinking amount of arable land, which will require innovation to ensure an adequate food supply, he said. “You need technology to solve that problem and gene editing is one of many technologies that will help.”

Representatives of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees bioengineered food labeling, did not respond to a request for clarification as of press time.

According to USDA’s labeling rule, bioengineered foods are those that have been modified through “recombinant” DNA techniques producing traits that “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.”

The agency’s rule said the definition is focused “primarily on the products of technology, not the technology itself.”

The USDA is “not making a blanket statement regarding the scope of technologies that are covered” by labeling requirements and will “consider new and emerging technologies and whether foods resulting from those technologies meet the definition of ‘bioengineered food.’”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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