Gene Editing

E.U. Regulators Can't Detect the Gene-Edited Crops They Banned

The difference between two identical genes—one edited and the other a natural mutation—is entirely metaphysical.


The European Court of Justice ruled last summer that the European Union's absurd regulatory scheme for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be applied to gene-edited crops. Such regulations, however, are scientifically nonsensical. GMO crops (typically modified by adding genes from other organisms)and gene-edited crops (using techniques like CRISPR to modify genes already in the crop variety) are safe for people and for the environment. Such crops need no more regulation than do crops created via conventional techniques such as crossbreeding or random mutation by blasting them with ionizing radiation and harsh chemicals.

Now foods labs are telling would-be E.U. regulators that there are no tests that can reliably distinguish between gene-edited and conventional crop varieties. Why? Because many of the edited genes are indistinguishable from those in naturally occurring organisms. Consequently, E.U. regulators are worried that gene-edited horrors from the U.S., such as Calyxt's healthy high-oleic-acid oil or Intrexon's non-browning lettuce, might sneak into European supermarkets undetected.

Before gene-editing, plant breeders would first identify a useful gene in a landrace variety, e.g., mildew resistance, and then onerously crossbreed generation after generation to transfer the gene into a more productive commercial variety. Biotechnologists can now induce mildew resistance by simply editing a few DNA pairs in the corresponding gene in the commercial variety to match the ones found naturally in the landrace.

In contrast to the bioluddites in Europe, regulators in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, and Australia have sensibly declared that they do not intend to regulate edited crops with mutations that could have occurred in nature.

Hermann Broll, a researcher in the Department of Food Safety at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin, according to Nature, noted that even if food testing labs could find the edits, regulators would still struggle to prove that the DNA variant they've identified is the result of gene editing, rather than a natural mutation. "I do not have a clue as to the solution—and I have not seen anywhere any clue yet," said Broll.

Here's a suggestion: Go back to the European Court of Justice and urge the judges to overturn their metaphysical ruling, which found that one of two identical genes must be regulated if it happens as a result of editing, while the other escapes administrative scrutiny if it is a natural or radiation-induced mutation.