When & Where & How Should Crops Be Genetically Modified?

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A wheat field in Mouchamps, France. There are very few genetically modified crops grown in Europe compared to the United States. Credit Regis Duvignau/Reuters

Thanks for this GMO primer by Carl Zimmer:

What Is a Genetically Modified Crop? A European Ruling Sows Confusion

In Europe, plants created with gene-editing technologies will be stringently regulated as G.M.O.’s. But older crops whose DNA has been altered will be left alone.

Mushrooms that don’t brown. Wheat that fights off disease. Tomatoes with a longer growing season.

All of these crops are made possible by a gene-editing technology called Crispr-cas9. But now its future has been clouded by the European Union’s top court.

This week, the court ruled that gene-edited crops are genetically modified organisms, and therefore must comply with the tough regulations that apply to plants made with genes from other species.

Many scientists responded to the decision with dismay, predicting that countries in the developing world would follow Europe’s lead, blocking useful gene-edited crops from reaching farms and marketplaces. The ruling may also curtail exports from the United States, which has taken a more lenient view of gene-edited foods.

“You’re not just affecting Europe, you’re affecting the world with this decision,” said Matthew Willmann, the director of the Plant Transformation Facility at Cornell University.

But the ruling also raises a more fundamental question: What does it actually mean for a crop to be genetically modified?

In its decision, the European Union court exempted crops produced through older methods of altering DNA, saying they were not genetically modified organisms. That assertion left many scientists scratching their heads.

“I don’t know why they are doing that,” said Jennifer Kuzma, an expert in genetic engineering at North Carolina State University. “I was thinking, ‘Do they have the right science advice?’”

Since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, all crop breeding has come down to altering the genetic composition of plants. For centuries, farmers selected certain plants to breed, or crossed varieties, hoping to pass useful traits to future generations.

In the early 20th century, scientists discovered genes and invented new ways to breed crops. Two lines of corn, for example, could be melded into hybrid plants that were superior to either parent.

By the 1920s, researchers realized that they didn’t have to content themselves with amplifying the genetic variations that already existed in plants. They could create new mutations.

To do so, they fired X-rays at plants or used chemicals that disrupted plant DNA. Mutagenesis, as this method came to be known, introduced random mutations into plants.

Scientists inspected the mutants to find those that were improvements. Thousands of plant breeds in use today, from strawberries to barley, are the product of mutagenesis…

Read the whole article here.

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