|Jason McHenry on his South Dakota farm.|
(Photo by Antonio Regalado)
Traditionally, genetically modified crops are created by splicing in genes from a soil bacterium to help them resist herbicides, boosting yields by suppressing weeds. The new wave of GMOs focuses on altering native characteristics of a plant using only the DNA it already has—a technology known as gene editing. The creators of these new GMOs argue that their plants are just like those produced by conventional breeding, just faster.
"To many scientists, the potential of gene editing seems nearly limitless, offering a new way to rapidly create plants that are drought-resistant, immune to disease, or improved in flavor," Antonio Regalado reports for MIT Technology Review. "A supermarket tomato that tastes good? That could happen if scientists restore the flavor-making genes that make heirloom varieties delicious. What about a corn plant with twice as many kernels? If nature allows it, scientists believe, gene editing could let them build it."
For example, Minnesota start-up Calyxt markets a soybean that creates an oil more like olive oil than typical soybean oil. That’s important because soybean oil has lost a lot of market share since the U.S. banned trans fats (which are present in partially hydrogenated soybean oil). South Dakota farmer Jason McHenry told Regalado he was persuaded to plant the Calyxt soybeans because "You have to keep your finger on what the consumer wants, and as a farmer, you have to differentiate yourself. If you are looking at a market that could be gone, you have to think about alternatives."
Some consumers and scientists are alarmed about the new GMOs, saying they might be unsafe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that the plants won’t be regulated like traditional GMOs since they don’t have foreign genes in them. That means Calyxt can get its new beans to market more quickly and cheaply, without having to go through the battery of permits, inspections and safety tests usually required of GMOs.
The question of whether gene-edited GMOs should be regulated like traditional GMOs is playing out across the world. “New Zealand decided that the new plants are GMOs after all, and so did the USDA’s own organic council. The Netherlands and Sweden don’t think they are. China hasn’t said. The European Union still has to make up its mind. Billions in global grain exports could ultimately hang in the balance,” Regalado reports.