Precise gene technology impacts GMO debate

Neil McRoberts, a University of California-Davis associate professor and plant pathologist, teaches Malaysian ag scientists and farmers about preventing cocoa pod disease during a trip in 2016. He says CRISPR-Cas9 and other gene editing advances will bring the GMO debate into a new era.

DAVIS, Calif. — Precise gene-editing technology is bringing the debate over genetically modified crops into a new era, researchers and experts say.

Called CRISPR technology, it allows researchers to edit genomes for precise traits and has created a buzz in the science world as a faster, cheaper and more accurate tool than previous techniques.

While the use of GMOs has ignited a high-pitched public debate for years, the ethical and socioeconomic debate over the newer techniques “seems to be keeping pace with the science,” observes Neil McRoberts, a University of California-Davis associate professor and plant pathologist.

McRoberts points to the latest issue of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, which asserts the potential to spread a genetic trait through an entire population of organisms — even to the point of extinction — calls for developing methods of “responsible governance.”

McRoberts said he has no “detailed blueprint” of how the regulation of GMO and related technologies should be implemented, but some general principles have emerged among scientists from the many years of debate.

“Public opinion will, and should, play a major role in whatever happens,” McRoberts said in an email. “The most widespread acceptance of this broad class of technologies is likely to occur under conditions of tight, effective, and transparent regulation and where the technology has been developed in a transparent way.”

Asked how he thinks products using the CRISPR technology will be regulated and labeled in the future, McRoberts said it depends on whether the new technology is considered by policymakers to be akin to GMO technology.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants in which scientists has inserted genetic materials from another plant or bacteria with a particular trait. CRISPR technology doesn’t do that. Instead, it allows scientists to “edit” the DNA of a plant to delete or change a trait. For example, a plant could be made more drought-resistant using the technique.

In the U.S., GMO products will continue to be regulated by agencies including the USDA, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with oversight, depending on a range of factors, he said.

If CRISPR is ultimately ruled not to be a GMO technology, arguments over regulation and labeling are irrelevant “at least according to the letter of the law,” he said. But there is debate among scientists over whether its users should treat it as a GMO technology and disclose its use whether policymakers require it or not, since some people “will consider it to be a GM technology,” he said.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for genome-editing technology, explains the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. There are numerous CRISPR systems.

One system, CRISPR-Cas9, enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by adding key molecules that introduce a change to the DNA.

A similar technology, CRISPR-Cpf1, is simpler in that it uses a smaller enzyme that cuts DNA in a different manner than Cas9, providing more flexibility in choosing target sites, the Broad Institute explained.

The CRISPR technology’s potential has profound implications for agriculture. The seed company Monsanto recently entered into an agreement with the Broad Institute to use CRISPR-Cpf1 technology to edit traits in corn, soybeans and other crops and ultimately develop new varieties years faster than by using traditional breeding techniques.

The advances in technologies that can make more precise, targeted genetic changes come as one noted former anti-GMO activist is now calling for a “peace treaty” between proponents and opponents of genetic modification.

At the Oxford Farming Conference in January, British author and environmental activist Mark Lynas outlined a seven-point plan by which the two sides could coexist. He urged anti-GMO activists to concede that the technology has been scientifically proven to be safe, to stop calling for bans and prohibitions, to “drop the Monsanto mania” and support public-sector, non-corporate uses of genetic engineering where appropriate.

At the same time, Lynas urged GMO proponents to “drop the snide attacks on organic and agro-ecological approaches” and support farming that aims for more sustainability. He said they should respect those who object to “moving genes between species” on ethical grounds rather than over safety concerns, and urged both sides to “be more respectful in terms of what we call each other.”

“So the deal is, I won’t call you anti-science if you don’t call me a Monsanto shill,” Lynas told his audience. “Let’s respect where each person is coming from and understand that views are sincerely held and mostly for the best reasons.”

McRoberts said he thinks Lynas “offered a rational starting point for moving the debate out of its entrenched positions,” but putting aside the rancor could prove difficult.

“I think coexistence of opposing views on this subject is possible, but it would be an unhappy coexistence for some people,” McRoberts said. “A successful outcome would be one which minimizes the number of unhappy people, while employing the technology for the greatest amount of good.”

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