CRISPR Critters: Regulators and the New Gene Revolution in Agriculture

More, better, and safer food - but only if regulators will stay out of the way.



It's CRISPR's world, and we're just living in it. The gene-editing technology, which has been likened to a genetic word processor, allows researchers to make specific changes ranging from tweaking a single DNA base pair to revising whole paragraphs of genetic information. Most of CRISPR's media attention has focused on the vast improvements it could bring to medicine, such as fixing genetic diseases, curing cancer, speeding up vaccine development, and overcoming antibiotic resistance in disease-causing microbes. Less widely reported, but no less momentous, are the dramatic transformations that CRISPR will bring to nearly all aspects of farming. All that is needed for this new green revolution to take off is for regulators to get out of the way.

Thanks to entirely specious fears about the safety of modern biotech crops, regulatory encrustations are significantly slowing the introduction of new genetically modified crop varieties, including some that resist pests, diseases, drought, salt, and heat and are nutritionally improved. In the U.S., the regulation costs of getting a new variety to farmers run about $136 million. As a result, only the bigger companies can afford to develop new crop varieties. The number of seed companies has fallen from scores in the 1980s to just six major companies today.

CRISPR opens an opportunity to avoid the regulatory mistakes of the past. The current biotech rules focus on the fact that plant breeders typically introduce new genes from unrelated species into crops. For example, genes for the insecticidal proteins derived from Bacillus thuringiensis protect corn, soybeans, and cotton from pests. The gene for the EPSPS protein obtained from the soil microbe Agrobacterium confers resistance to the herbicide glyphosate. These genes and the proteins they make are safe for people to eat; yet each new variety incorporating them must undergo regulatory approval before farmers are permitted to plant them.

CRISPR can avoid the introduction of genes from unrelated species into crop plants. In fact, CRISPR's gene-edited crops would be indistinguishable from crops created by means of conventional crossbreeding.

In conventional crossbreeding, researchers identify a useful trait in a landrace or closely related wild variety—say, resistance to mildew. Plant breeders then try to incorporate mildew resistance into high-yielding commercial varieties by crossbreeding. Of course, half of the genes come from each parent, so the first crossbred generations will contain lots of genes from the landrace that mix in undesirable traits that undermine the crop varieties' high-yield potential. So plant breeders have to keep backcrossing for generations and years to isolate the mildew resistance gene into a commercially viable new variety.

CRISPR provides a short cut. Using genomic techniques, plant breeders can identify the exact mildew resistance gene in a landrace and then find the corresponding, less effective version in the commercial variety. The gene in the commercial version can then be edited to perfectly match the more effective landrace gene. The new, gene-edited commercial variety is identical in all relevant respects to a conventionally crossbred mildew resistant commercial variety. In fact, Chinese researchers have reported using gene-editing to create a wheat variety that resists powdery mildew. Since there is no difference between the gene-edited and conventional varieties, there should be no difference how they are regulated.

In February, a group of Chinese, German, and American biotech researchers outlined in Nature Genetics a fairly reasonable regulatory framework for genome-edited crops. They proposed that plant breeders who create gene-edited crops (GECs) should first minimize the risk that they escape from labs and fields during research and development. Then the researchers would have to show that no foreign genes remain in their GEC varieties, document how closely the edited genes match genes found in related species, and make sure there are no off-target edits. If the new GEC variety satisfies these conditions, it should be registered just as any new conventional variety is and regulated no more stringently than any other commercial crop variety. "The opportunities that GECs offer for ensuring global food and nutrition security are at least on the same order as those from GM crops and in many cases are more promising than those from conventional breeding," the researchers note.

An editorial in the same issue of Nature Genetics endorses this proposal. "A distinction must be established, particularly in the public sphere, between 'genetically modified organisms' (GMOs) generated through the transgenic introduction of foreign DNA sequences and 'genome-edited crops' (GECs) generated through precise editing of an organism's native genome," it urges. Given that no one has gotten so much as a cough, sneeze, or bellyache from foods made using current biotech crops, the distinction between GMOs and GECs is not being made for safety reasons, but only as a way try to forestall regulators from applying their already excessive rules to gene-edited crops. So far it seems to be working.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled that crops created using other gene-editing techniques do not need its approval. Using its proprietary Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS), the agbio firm Cibus had created a variety of canola that is resistant to its sulfonylurea herbicide. In 2004, the USDA decided—and European regulators agreed—that RTDS is a natural form of targeted mutagenesis, and therefore that crops generated using it do not have to go through an onerous and costly approval process. The USDA is supposed to decide whether it has the authority to regulate CRISPR-generated crops soon.

CRISPR will improve not just crops but livestock. Chinese researchers have used the technique to make muscular goats that grow more hair; American researchers have used it to generate hornless cattle; British researchers have tweaked immune system genes in domestic pigs to match those from warthogs, so that they now resist African swine fever; and South Korean researchers gene-edited pigs to be much meatier. In all cases, no "foreign" DNA was added. It took nearly 20 years for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the first genetically modified animal for human consumption, the faster growing AquaBounty salmon. Given CRISPR's precision, there is no reason gene-edited livestock should be more highly regulated than conventionally bred cows, goats, and pigs.


CRISPR could also greatly improve the control of agricultural pests. For example, CRISPR gene-drives could be developed that make insects and weeds once again susceptible to pesticides and herbicides to which they had become resistant. CRISPR could be used to engineer a gene drive that copies itself onto chromosomes that previously were without it. When an organism inherits such a gene drive from a parent, the drive copies itself onto the chromosome from the other parent. In such a way, CRISPR-enabled gene drives could reinstate the earlier susceptible genotypes in pest and weed populations. Restoring an earlier genotype in a pest population should require little regulatory oversight.

Gene drives could also be used to drastically reduce the numbers of a pest species or even force it to go extinct. CRISPR can be used to engineer a gene into the Y chromosome of a targeted pest species that cuts out the X chromosomes from sperm-generating cells, thus ensuring that all progeny are male. Already researchers have created a gene-drive that would greatly reduce the populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Since the effects of Y-drives could extend well beyond farmers' fields and pastures, regulatory scrutiny might be called for when such innovations are released into the ecological open commons.

"For better or for worse, CRISPR–Cas9 is transforming biology," the editors of Nature Genetics observe. "We are now at the dawn of the gene-editing age." In this age, farmers will be able to grow more, better, and safer food while sparing more land for nature—but only if regulators will stay out of the way.

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  1. I for one, look forward to the zombie apocalypse started by the genetically altered broccoli trees.

    1. Clearly, if we’d had these before, it would never have been called a “mushroom” cloud.

      1. But “Mushroom Cloud” sounds much better than “Broccoli Cloud”

      2. Whattabouta “broccoli” stamp, amirite?

        1. Ewwww. That means you have a serious problem down there.

  2. but only if regulators will stay out of the way

    Aw, shite…..and this technology ad so much promise. Oh well.

    1. That it did Guv’nah. Why are we doing cockney accents?

    2. That it did Guv’nah. Why are we doing cockney accents?

      1. Then the squirrel went up the apple and pears, it did.

      2. Yer shouldn’t have ordered Frankencockles wif yer peas n’ mash, gov.

  3. What exactly do opponents propose is the vector by which GMOs might harm consumers? Irradiation at least has a plausible mechanism for causing harm (though opposition is rooted in the mistaken notion that irradiated foods are themselves radioactive). But it’s unclear how metabolizing gene-edited crops might harm me unless they’ve been edited for something pointless and implausible, like synthesizing a toxin.

    1. First off, have you never watched a sci-fi movie? Secondly, it’s unnatural–just like the gays–and therefore, must be destroyed.

      Also we must never suffer a witch to live, but that one i actually agree with.

      1. “Also we must never suffer a witch to live, but that one i actually agree with.”

        I’ll go along with that – as long as Hillary is the first to go.

    2. It involves SCIENCE and GENES!!!!!!!

      You know what ALSO involves SCIENCE and GENES!!!!!

      Horrible mutations!!!!!!

      Also Science is SCARY!!!!!!!

    3. The difference between GMO crops and gene-edited crops is that editing will precisely replace one gene with a desired mutation from the same species. GMO crops however contain genes from foreign species. The problem in both cases, especially GMO, is that many many genes often act properly only in the context of other genes in their original genome, and in GMO especially, a single gene is transferred to a foreign species without the modifier genes of the original species. This is the theoretical possible cause of undesired side effects of gene transfer techniques. I am therefore pleasantly surprised that there have so far been no undesirable effects of GMO foods. But I remain cautious about it until further experiments have been done – unfortunately on us , without our knowledge or consent.

      1. Translation: “I have no clue what I’m talking about and I want to sound like I do so I will sound reasoned, and say sciency hoping that in the end you will be tricked into thinking that I do… but I don’t”

        It’s here that I would post the link to that commerciall where the old lady says to her friend… “That’s not how it works… that’s not how any of this works!!!”.

      2. “unfortunately on us , without our knowledge or consent.”

        Basically though you’re supposedly afraid enough of GMO’s to force the entire food industry to label their millions of products “contains GMO’s”, but you’re too damn lazy to just search out the few products that are ALREADY LABELED “Contains no GMO’s” that you actually want to consume, and that are already all usually found in the same place in the organic foods sections anyway.

        That’s funny. You not checking the labels is people sneaking poisons into your body and while you’re too damn lazy to check the label for these things you think are maybe poisons, you think adding more labels will stop this from happening.

        1. I find it funny that so many libertarians actually believe that their best argument for the free market is – the exact same argument used by patent medicine quacks

          Don’t force us to put a label on our ‘cures everything from cancer to diarrhea to gout to backaches to toothaches to cholera to rheumatism to general pain and inflammation to female problems’ – that says it contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cocaine, turpentine, chloroform.

          1. Wait, the Libertarians that exist only in your imagination argue that people should be able to commit fraud and cause harm to others? Man those guys are assholes.

            1. Your argument that producers shouldn’t label their ingredients is EXACTLY the argument used by patent medicine quacks. And it is not a free market argument because it is a deliberate attempt by the producer to disguise contents that consumers WANT labelled and will act upon. WTF do you think the food industry is resisting labelling this stuff? Because consumers WANT the information and will act on such information and food producers don’t want that to happen. You focus on arsenic as if its the poisonous of that that matters. What matters is the INFORMATION. If the contents of the product are “horse shit, Frankenstein’s penis, baby duck beaks, mashed fetus, and pork/cow for all you religious types”; then it is up to the producer to say what’s in the product they are selling. It is not up to every other producer to say what is not in their product. Yeesh.

              1. “horse shit, Frankenstein’s penis, baby duck beaks, mashed fetus, and pork/cow for all you religious types”

                That qualifies it for the gold star organic label! Consumers don’t want that information any more than they want menu calorie information. Fearmongers want the labeling branding because they know it will scare away the ignorant from something that has empirically been shown to be harmless.

                I never want to see sugar listed on a label again. From now on it must be sucrose. I demand that the isomer of every compound be listed because anything short of that is false advertising!

                This is pure FUD and you know it.

                1. So what if fearmongerers then attach themselves to whatever the label says and try to boycott it or get consumers not to buy? Don’t they have freedom of speech?

                  Are libertarians now gonna assert that some huge company with govt patent protection and bureaucrat TOP MEN assertions of safety and access to free money from Fed insiders and a long-standing history of using govt courts and gobs of lawyers to force non-customers into buying its products is some freaking small-guy victim here so they should be given govt exemptions to putting an accurate label on its products? Is that modern libertarianism? Cuz it looks to me like someone just munching on Monsanto-brand dingleberries (organic of course).

                  1. JFree|3.13.16 @ 12:36AM|#
                    “So what if fearmongerers then attach themselves to whatever the label says and try to boycott it or get consumers not to buy? Don’t they have freedom of speech?”

                    Help yourself; luddites gonna luddite and I can’t do anything about it. Nor am I gonna pay to help your stupidity.

      3. This *might* be a decent argument as to why GMO plants or the inserted gene might not function as well as in the native configuration (though it doesn’t seem to be true), but this has absolutely nothing to do with the effects of eating the plant.

    4. It’s like meddling with the economy – lots of unintended consequences. Have you ever seen a transcription network. Do yourself a favor and Google the transcription network for e. coli, one of the simplest ones out there. Now imagine changing one of the genes. How many arrows does it change? How many other genes’ expression is affected? Now add the metabolic network and ask the same questions.

      Top down meddling with genes is similar to top down meddling with the economy. There will be unintended and unseen consequence. This does not mean we should not do it, but caution and foresight is advised.

      1. Also, adding an edit button might crash this website.

      2. I like the analogy, but I think it’s misused. Economies adapt to maximize efficient use of resources. Biological networks adapt to maximize reproduction in the given environment. Human interference with either one at steady state conditions is unlikely to increase how well adapted the system is, yes. But since adaptation in biological systems takes time, and we’ve been doing selective breeding for a comparatively short time and pests are transient and also biological, I don’t think you can argue that the current state must optimal with respect to the aims of farming. Further, all the networks are of course broken down when eaten, so it’s hard to argue that any of this applies to the health of the consumer.

    5. “But it’s unclear how metabolizing gene-edited crops might harm me unless they’ve been edited for something pointless and implausible, like synthesizing a toxin.”

      But don’t you see? The corporations make money by forcing you at gunpoint to buy their products that will kill you!

      /what some “progressives” actually believe

  4. I wonder if regulation is the answer to the Fermi paradox, why we see no signs of advanced interstellar civilizations? Government just strangles progress, and eventually we achieve the socialist dream of everybody equally mired in a stagnant society with no progress.

    1. Wow, I had not thought of that before… Cool… Or, anti-cool, rather…

      There ARE no advanced space aliens, because they advance up to the point where the Luddites and navel-gazers take over, then they retreat to their caves to navel-gaze (and drag their women around by their hair, and beat them with their clubs, but the hair-pulling and clubs are all ORGANICALLY grown, so it is all OK).

      Thanks for the nut-punch! I am ostrich-like, gonna go put my head under the sand, now…

    2. Or species cause their own demise through technology. Or it’s a dark forest out there. So many possible answers to the Fermi paradox exist.

      1. The Fermi Paradox brings about great conversations. Throw the suggestion “Maybe we’re uniquely created” and people tend to lose their shit though.

    3. Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair|3.11.16 @ 4:33PM|#
      “I wonder if regulation is the answer to the Fermi paradox, why we see no signs of advanced interstellar civilizations?”

      It’s definitely the reason we have no time travel. Receivers have not yet been permitted, and until we have those, we can’t receive the transmissions.

  5. Will conventional solanine producing spuds lose their Freedom Fry market share to the new CRISPR Cocaine chips, or will MacDonalds hold out for heroin sequence re-editing of potato root biochem ?

  6. Luddites gotta luddite.

    Hell, I saw the video of the walking robot, and people were reflexively commenting:

    “Oh my god. The government must shut these people down. Walking. Machines!!!!!”

    1. There plenty of Luddite comments in the self-driving cars thread a few days ago.

  7. Forget plants and animals can it cure genetic diseases?

  8. Just out of curiosity. . . how long has Reason been a Monsanto subsidiary?

    1. My thought exactly – but better stated.

      Not at all surprising unfortunately that Reason pretends that the game of which regulator needs better capturing so that a different govt-granted monopoly can be reinforced is what the free market is all about.

      Newsflash Reason – NONE of this is being driven by consumers. That should be a hint that it has nothing to do with actual markets. I look forward to your continued failure to understand this.


    3. Reverend Draco|3.12.16 @ 11:18AM|#
      “Just out of curiosity. . . how long has Reason been a Monsanto subsidiary?”

      Just out of curiosity, how long have you been a dishonest luddite?

      1. Goddammit, I want my foods created the way God intended: wide hybridization, chemical mutagens, and holy radiation!

        Fuck this science shit. If God had intended man to play with genetic codes, he would have given us brains!

  9. No joke, Rev. I am fine with innovation but Bailey always ridicules anyone showing any hesitation before welcoming this radical new technology with open arms. I still think that we have a right to know what we are being sold but somehow that makes me a Luddite.
    So yeah, make it and sell it to those who want it, but label it so we know what we are eating. Why is that considered so unreasonable at Reason?

    1. “I still think that we have a right to know what we are being sold but somehow that makes me a Luddite.
      So yeah, make it and sell it to those who want it, but label it so we know what we are eating. Why is that considered so unreasonable at Reason?”

      You have a “right to know” and you can find out if you’re willing to look.
      I have a “right” to not pay to educate luddites.

      1. I am willing. So just where would I look on an unlabeled food product? If the bag just says “rice” then how do I know that it has been genetically modified? You think adding a line of print to the bag violates your “right to not pay to educate luddites”? Again, an insult instead of reasoned argument. “Just shut up and buy what you are told” is a strange stance to be so popular here at Reason. .

  10. Some recent opinion pubs on a similar matter in Trends in Plant Science:

    Hidden Attraction: Empirical rationality in GMO opposition, Couee. Feb 2016

    The need to understand GMO opposition, Reply to Couee, Blancke et al. Feb 2016

    1. One more:

      Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Blancke, July 2015

  11. But what will the regulators do if they don’t regulate? Maybe they can tax?

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  13. RE: CRISPR Critters: Regulators and the New Gene Revolution in Agriculture

    C’mon people!
    Everyone knows FDA bureaucrats are smarter than any scientist!
    How do you think these appartachiks got their cushy government job?

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