Earlier this month, a Swedish plant biologist Stefan Jansson sautéed up a handful of cabbage, tossed it with some pasta and sat down to eat the first ever CRISPR-modified meal consumed by a human.
Jansson gave the dish a clever name: “Tagliatelle with CRISPRy fried vegetables." It was, The Atlantic heralded, the start of a tasty, genetically engineered food revolution.
CRISPR is a genetic engineering technique that allows scientists to either snip out or add little bits of DNA to a genome more easily than ever. Jansson persuaded authorities in Sweden that his CRISPR crop could be cultivated without requiring any special regulatory authority because it didn't include any "foreign DNA." Jansson's cabbage, a strain called Brassica oleracea that looks and tastes similar to broccoli, underwent a snip, the deletion of a single gene to make it grow slower.
In the U.S., some CRISPR foods exist in a similar legal loophole. Earlier this year, the USDA gave the greenlight to CRISPR mushrooms engineered to not brown. It wrote that because the new mushroom “does not contain any introduced genetic material” it isn’t even subject to the agency’s GMO regulations.
But a new bill quietly passed and signed into law at the end of July seeks to change that.
The law, an amendment to the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946, requires that over the next two years the Secretary of Agriculture establish a national disclosure standard for “bioengineered” foods. The law goes on to define "bioengineered" as such:
(A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and
(B) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.
The law, in other words, will not only create a mandatory national requirement for labeling genetically modified foods, it significantly expands the definition of what we consider "genetically modified."
Under the new regulations, for example, the non-browning CRISPR mushroom might be considered exempt, since the gene deletion is similar to a mutation achieved in apples through "conventional" breeding. But it seems far more likely that the law would apply, because the mushrooms are indeed modified in vitro using recombinant DNA techniques.
We've been tinkering with crops since our cave-dwelling days, when our ancestors sat around in fields urging more robust wheat stalks to pollinate each other. Before CRISPR, there seemed to be a sharper line between foods created "naturally" through selective breeding and cross breeding and food made in a lab. We might cross a plum and an apricot to get a strange new fruit, but nature was allowing it to happen rather than scientists in lab coats forcing the change on a genome. But now with CRISPR, scientists can more easily alter crops without adding genes from another species to make non-browning mushrooms or slow-growing cabbage. That is, of course, a genetic modification. But does it really jive with our idea of what makes a GMO?
Jansson points out how strange our delineations can seem. His lab, for example, is working to produce plants lacking one particular protein, PsbS, in order to better study and understand photosynthesis. To do this, they use several techniques, including CRISPR. From a scientific perspective all of these methods achieve the same thing, but some would fall clearly within the scope of the GMO legislation while others would not.
"It would be rather odd to have two plants that are exactly the same but one is forbidden and the other is free to cultivate without limitations," Jansson wrote. "That’s the only reasonable interpretation."
Some scientists have argued that foods altered by merely deleting a gene should be considered fundamentally different from the transgenic engineering responsible for crops like Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant corn. This process, they say, is a less biologically-disruptive means of altering plants.
This is the same thinking that moved the USDA to pass on regulations of the non-browning mushrooms. The USDA began regulating genetically modified crops in the 1990s fearing that crops with foreign DNA could accidentally cause environmental harm. The DNA-snipped mushrooms did not present the same harm.
Anti-GMO activists, however, still argue that such foods carry the risk of the unknown.
"Just as [with] ‘traditional’ genetic engineering, gene editing techniques can induce unintended changes in genetic material even if only one or a few base pairs have been altered," Greenpeace wrote in a policy briefing.
That Monsanto, probably most-hated villain of the GMO food war, just purchased a license to develop its own CRISPR crop will no doubt fan the anti-GMO flames.
Many other crops have already been engineered with CRISPR, including soybeans, rice, and potatoes. The agricultural technology firm Dupont is testing using the technology to make drought-resistant corn, which it plans to start selling by the end of this decade.
What both Jansson and USDA policy propose is basing our definitions on the product, not the method of achieving it. If an edit cannot be distinguished from a natural occurring mutation, it is not a GMO.
Some anti-GMO activists were upset about the new law for a different reason. Because the law requires that GM content of a food be disclosed by “text, symbol or electronic or digital link," they worry that access to information about what's in our food will still be too hard to access, requiring a shopper to visit a link on the internet to find out what's in their food rather than just declaring it in the label.
CRISPR could be an opportunity to radically rethink our ideas about what's on our plate. The new law, though, instead further muddles the definition of genetically modified, not only redefining it, but broadening it to potentially include anything with genes that have been tinkered with in the lab.