When it comes to regulating genetically engineered crops, the process is far from streamlined.
A new study published in Science and led by North Carolina State University suggests the current system for regulating the safety of the crops lacks consistency and, therefore, scientific merit.
Genetically engineered crops are created using technology that allows scientists to tweak crops at the genetic level, altering the plant’s DNA. This process is often used to create crops with more desirable qualities such as drought or pest resistance, increased size or flavor of fruits or vegetables and larger overall yields.
According to the study, the process of regulating engineered crops varies wildly across the world. Some regions, such as the European Union, regulate all varieties of crops produced through genetic engineering technology known as CRISPR. Other governments base the decision of what crops need to be regulated based on the size and amount of genetic changes made, as well as where the added genetic material originates from.
But Fred Gould, co-director of NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society Center and the corresponding author of the article, says that, in this case, size doesn’t always matter.
“The approaches used right now, which differ among governments, lack scientific rigor,” he said in the study. “The size of the change made to a product and the origin of the DNA have little relationship with the results of that change; changing one base pair of DNA in a crop with 2.5 billion base pairs, like corn, can make a substantial difference.”
Instead, he argues, regulation should be based on the question: Does the new crop variety have unfamiliar characteristics?
In an effort to create a more effective framework for monitoring genetically modified crops, which continue to grow in prominence, as well as avoid unnecessary safety testing, researchers propose taking an approach that takes a harder look at the final crops themselves, focusing less on the process in which the crops were created. For example, this new method uses what the researchers call the “-omics” approaches, meaning the crops are examined for new characteristics in a similar way biomedical techniques can use genomics to test for problematic mutations in human genomes.
The methods—such as transcriptomics, proteomics, epigenomics and metabolomics—can test the plants and crops for changes in their molecular composition and compare that to the nature of a commercial variety of the same crop.
If the “-omics” testing concludes that the new engineered variety of the crop shows no troublesome differences from existing varieties of the crop and shows no markers of health or environmental risks, then there would be no need for safety testing. On the other hand, if the testing shows a potential red flag in new crop varieties, a safety test would be recommended.
The new approach would not add cost to the process, according to researchers, as most of the new crop varieties would not trigger safety testing.
In order to streamline the process and actually develop this new framework, Gould recommends creating an international committee composed of crop breeders, chemists and molecular biologists to establish the details, costs and options of the “-omics” testing approach. “National and international governing bodies should sponsor these committees and workshops as well as innovative research to get the ball rolling and ensure that assessments are accessible and accurate,” he said.