Researchers propose a new regulatory framework for engineered crops

A Policy Forum article published this week in Science calls for a new approach to regulating genetically modified (GM) crops, saying current approaches to triggering safety tests vary widely from country to country and are generally lacking. of scientific merit – particularly as advances in crop breeding have blurred the line between conventional breeding and genetic engineering.

For example, when it comes to varieties created using the powerful gene-editing system known as CRISPR, the European Union regulates all varieties while other governments base their decisions on the size of the genetic change and the source of the inserted genetic material. Meanwhile, in 2020, the US Department of Agriculture established a rule that exempts conventionally bred crop varieties and genetically modified crop varieties from regulation that could have been developed by methods other than engineering. genetic. One of the paper’s co-authors is Ken Giller, Professor of Crop Production Systems at Wageningen University and Research.

Rather than focusing on the methods and processes behind creating a genetically modified crop to determine if testing is needed, the paper argues that a more effective framework would examine specific new characteristics of the crop itself using so-called “-omics” approaches. . In the same way that biomedical sciences can use genomics approaches to analyze human genomes for problematic mutations, genomics can be used to analyze new crop varieties for unexpected changes in DNA.

Additional -omics methods such as transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics test for other changes in the molecular composition of plants. These measurements of thousands of molecular traits can be used as a fingerprint to determine whether a new variety’s product is “substantially equivalent” to products already made by existing varieties – if, for example, a new peach variety has molecular characteristics that are already found in one or more existing commercial peach varieties.

If the new product shows no differences or includes differences with no expected health or environmental effects from products of existing varieties, no safety testing would be recommended. If, however, the product has new characteristics that may have health or environmental effects, or if the product has differences that cannot be interpreted, safety testing would be recommended.

American Academy of Sciences
The article was written by a group of American experts and Wageningen professor Ken Giller. Six years ago, they were already working together on a committee of the American Academy of Sciences and together authored the report Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, which aimed to “assess the evidence for the alleged negative effects of GM crops and the technologies that accompany them. and “assess the evidence for the purported benefits of GM crops and accompanying technologies.” Most of the members of this committee co-authored the guidance document published this week.

“We’re missing so many opportunities,” says Giller, a farming systems specialist, particularly for the tropics. “Not just in crop improvement, but also in disease resistance. Biotechnology has been used in the past to make crops resistant to herbicides. Thus, genetic improvement has enabled farmers to spray more pesticides. But genetic improvement can also be done in the opposite direction, incorporating plant disease resistance, which would help us to significantly reduce the use of pesticides.

Changing a DNA base pair can make a substantial difference. “The approaches currently used to regulate genetically modified (GM) crops – which differ from government to government – lack scientific rigor,” adds Fred Gould, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and NC State Society Center and the corresponding author of the article. “The size of the change made to a product and the origin of the DNA have little to do with the results of that change; changing a base pair of DNA in a crop with 2.5 billion base pairs, such as corn, can make a substantial difference, for example.

According to the authors, “-omics” approaches, if used wisely, would not increase the cost of regulation. Gould: “It is likely that most new varieties would not trigger a need for regulation. The most important question is: “Does the new variety have any unknown characteristics?”

Development of a new regulatory framework
The creation of an international committee of plant breeders, chemists and molecular biologists to establish the options and costs of “-omics” approaches for a variety of crops would initiate the process of developing this new regulatory framework. Workshops with these experts as well as sociologists, policy makers, regulators and representatives of the general public would enable reliable deliberations that could avoid some of the problems encountered when rolling out the GE in the 1990s. National and international governing bodies should sponsor these committees and workshops as well as innovative research to start the process and ensure that assessments are accessible and accurate.

For more information:
Wageningen University and Research

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