Researchers want GMO transparency

American scientists are worried that new U.S. rules to govern GMOs make a distinction between genetic modification and gene editing.  | File photo

There has long been consumer interest in genetically modified food, including criticism that there is not enough public information about GM and gene edited crops in the food supply.

Now, researchers at North Carolina State University are calling for a coalition of the biotech industry, government, non-government organizations, trade organizations and academic experts to tackle the issue.

They have proposed that the agencies and scientists work together to provide clearer information on crops changed by gene technology to explain how and why plants and plant products are modified.

The first GM food approved for release was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994, produced by Calgene, a California-based company. It was modified to have a longer shelf life by inserting an antisense gene that delayed ripening.

In 2009, the genome editing tool CRISPR was introduced, which allows scientists to edit the DNA of organisms such as plants, bacteria and animals to improve physical traits such as disease, pest or drought resistance. Researchers don’t introduce foreign genetic material into an organism. Instead, they use CRISPR like a pair of scissors to snip and edit DNA at a specific spot.

However, the public has little knowledge about the technique or its consequences, if any. Hence the call for greater transparency.

Last May, a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule called SECURE (sustainable, ecological, consistent, uniform, responsible, efficient) was introduced to govern genetically engineered organisms. However, according to the university’s news release, the rule exempts most GM plants from pre-market field testing and data-based risk assessment. The USDA estimates that 99 percent of biotech crops would receive exemption.

“I’ve been studying this area of agricultural biotechnology and GM foods for over two decades,” said Jennifer Kuzma, Goodnight-NC GSK Foundation distinguished professor in social sciences and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at NCSU. “There has been in general a lack of transparency and, with the advent of gene editing about 10 years ago, the USDA regulatory system has been exempting many of the products of gene editing and gene edited plants.”

Kuzma said that with the revised regulations, SECURE has a pathway whereby producers of gene edited crops can self-exempt. Even with the regulations, the information will be spread across different regulatory pathways. Some will be public information while other data will be confidential business knowledge. She added that there is also a category where producers can put product on the market without any public disclosure or information provided.

“That’s problematic,” she said.

“There is a segment of the population where people want to know whether their foods are modified by modern biotechnology and they won’t necessarily distinguish between something that is transgenetic, a first-generation genetic engineered method or a second-generation gene edited technique. I think it’s important for people to know that these gene edited plants are going into the market.”

To provide that transparency, Kuzma and her colleagues are recommending the creation of CLEAR-GOV, or as stated in the university’s news release, a “community-led and responsive governance” coalition that would provide access to basic information on biotech crops in accessible language. That would include the species and specific variety of the plant, the type of trait modified, the actual improvement the modification provided, areas where the crop is grown, and downstream uses of the crop. The coalition would be run as a non-profit organization staffed by academic experts in their respective fields.

She said that crop developers and companies have indicated that they want to do better with gene editing to improve public trust. The researchers’ suggestion for CLEAR-GOV would basically be a model for them to provide that transparency and obtain certification based on information about their gene-edited and other GM crops in a public repository.

“I have had food companies, agricultural and seed companies, contact me in support of the recommendation,” she said.

“I do think that there is a segment of the agricultural industry that wants to do better with the gene edited crops and the second-generation GMOs. There have been some efforts to develop stewardship principles for responsible gene editing. We want to take it a step further and say that there should be a public data base that states what GM and gene edited foods are going into the marketplace.”

Complicating the issue is food labeling, especially considering that the industry has moved from the term “genetically modified” to “bioengineered.”

“People are used to the term GM, but our U.S. labelling law is now using the term bioengineered, which would include GM and gene editing,” said Kuzma.

“Why they changed the term, I don’t know. Part of me thinks they may have done it so that consumers would not associate positive labelling, bioengineering, with GM.”

The problem is that regardless of the bioengineering technique, a final food product would have to contain foreign DNA in order to be called GM. However, under that scenario, many gene edited foods would not have to be labelled because they would not have foreign DNA.

“In things like corn syrup or corn meal or soybean oil, if there is not foreign DNA in the final product, even if it came from a GM crop, it wouldn’t have to be labelled. There’s a lot of loopholes here.”

She said that even though developers of biotech foods want to do better with a second generation of gene editing, they are really making things more complicated by obscuring the terminology and exempting many things from both regulation and labelling.

She argued that while it is good that they want to try to do better, plant breeders are actually repeating the problems that occurred in the first generation of genetic modification when it comes to public trust and public legitimacy.

Kuzma believes CLEAR-GOV would fill an important gap for consumers and other stakeholder groups.

“Because many gene-edited crops would be exempt under SECURE, and new GM food-labelling rules may not apply to them, there needs to be some information repository for companies that want to do the right thing and be more transparent,” said Kuzma.

“Our recommendations would provide a mechanism for that.”

The research was published in the journal Science.

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