Using the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, Yinong Yang, a researcher at the Pennsylvania State University, has created a variety of genetically modified mushrooms that keep longer because of their lighter color. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has determined that the kinds of fungi created this way should not be regarded as the traditional “genetically modified organisms” and are therefore exempt from additional controls in the United States. But the new technique and the USDA decision could have ramifications for regulatory bodies abroad.
The USDA decision is based on the fact that with the CRISPR-Cas9 technique does not introduce genes of different species. The CRISPR methodology allows scientists to intervene on specific segments of an organism’s DNA, turning off or “correcting” genes. Although it is not the only biotechnology able to do this, the ease of use and low cost have made it in two or three years the most popular instrument for manipulating DNA. The CRISPR method is generating high expectations at a scientific level while provoking fears over the bioethics involved — because now it seems all the more simple to modify a human embryo. But in the meantime, it could have a disruptive impact on the agro-food industry.
With CRISPR, in fact, you can create genetically modified organisms without running into limitations imposed by many countries. The most common commercially available GM crops incorporate other naturally occurring genes: BT rice, for example, takes its name from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, whose genes the rice has “absorbed” to defend it from pests. Many agricultural restrictions on the use of GMOs are justified by the difficulty of predicting the ecosystem consequences of genetic mutations as radical as swapping entire genes from one species to another. Genetic modification based on CRISPR called cisgenesis, however, would not have the same risks.
The novelty is dividing policy makers. In the U.S., as evidenced by the mushrooms at Penn State University, the less strict interpretation is prevailing. Over the past five years, 30 organisms modified by cisgenesis (but using techniques other than CRISPR) obtained USDA approval for the market.
In the European Union, where countries can ban GM crops in their territory, prudence dominates for now. But several national committees are considering the effects of new hybridization techniques. The aim is to come up with a law later this year in step with scientific progress. Meanwhile, the new GM should apply the old rules with a case-by-case basis, as suggested by experts at the European Food Safety Authority.
Even the traditional opponents of GMOs appear divided. On the one hand, environmental groups and farmers’ organizations such as Greenpeace, Coldiretti or French Confédération Paysanne (that of José Bové) are demanding that anti-GMO restrictions also apply to the new varieties. A recent report of the Greenpeace study center cautioned about the lack of knowledge of the consequences of an artificial intervention in the DNA, even without inserting foreign genes. In Paris on April 6, a protest rally organized by the Confédération Paysanne, Greenpeace and other environmental groups forced the High Biotech Council to cancel one of its meetings.
But the anti-GMO front is no longer so united. Italian Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina, for example, called for new GM products that are not subject to the old rules. This project is backed by the agri-business sector, even those who have so far advocated organic farming and made traditional local production a marketing strategy.
“We must also allow experimentation in the vineyard: no to GMOs, no to GM, but yes to cisgenesis,” the founder of Eataly, Oscar Farinetti, enthusiastically said during a recent conference.
But what remains the crux of it is access to technology: The long-life mushrooms have been patented by Penn State University. The CRISPR revolution, therefore, will be reserved for those who can afford it. In this, the old and new GM will look a lot alike.