USDA reconfirms stance on gene-edited crops

By Joan Conrow

March 28, 2018

Image by NHGRI

US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue today reconfirmed that his agency has no plans to impose new or additional regulation on crops developed through new breeding techniques, such as gene editing.

His statement essentially reiterates the same policy that the US Department of Agriculture has followed for years, raising questions as to what prompted Purdue to issue a public “clarification” now.

Under its biotechnology regulations, the USDA currently does not regulate plants that could have been developed through traditional breeding methods, unless they are plant pests or developed using plant pests. The agency intends to take the same approach with new breeding methods, which the statement said “can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.”

The statement continued:

“Plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional value and eliminating allergens,” Perdue said. “Using this science, farmers can continue to meet consumer expectations for healthful, affordable food produced in a manner that consumes fewer natural resources. This new innovation will help farmers do what we aspire to do at USDA: do right and feed everyone.”

However, the statement was not accompanied by any rules or other documents that clarify exactly which innovations qualify under these guidelines. The USDA previously determined that a new variety of corn, an oil-rich camelina and a non-browning mushroom developed using the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 did not fall within its regulatory authority because they did not involve any plant pests.

The thornier issue now is how gene-edited animals will be regulated, an area where the US Food and Drug Administration has primary authority.

Perdue also used the statement to reiterate his agency’s commitment to crop safety, while suggesting that other biotech regulatory reforms are in the works:

“At the same time, I want to be clear to consumers that we will not be stepping away from our regulatory responsibilities. While these crops do not require regulatory oversight, we do have an important role to play in protecting plant health by evaluating products developed using modern biotechnology. This is a role USDA has played for more than 30 years, and one I will continue to take very seriously, as we work to modernize our technology-focused regulations.”