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USA allow cultivation of genome-edited plants without risk assessment

by Leo Frühschütz (comments: 0)

Reseacher cuts a gene segment with a pair of scissors.
In contrast to conventional breeding techniques, gene scissors could change entire gene families at once. © Shutterstock/GeK

According to research carried out by Testbiotech, the US agricultural authority APHIS has already granted more than 20 approvals for plants whose genetic material has been modified using new genetic engineering methods. In a report, Testbiotech complained that in none of the cases had the authority requested a detailed risk assessment. Though, the production processes, properties and risks of the approved plants differ significantly from those of conventional breeding.

Target genes descriptions classified as confidential business

The releases of APHIS include lettuce, tomatoes, maize, wheat, soy, potato and other plants. Among the applicants is the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, which intends to grow genetically modified tobacco plants. At almost half of the manipulated plants released by APHIS constituents were modified. For others, the modified genetic material is intended to bring advantages in processing or make the plant resistant to diseases.

However, there is not very much written in the publicly available applications: “The exact description of the target genes is in most cases classified as confidential business information,” writes Testbiotech. In addition, the status of development is generally not clear. “It can only be determined that the applications are generally made at an early stage,” the report states. It is known that Calyxt 2018 started growing soybeans with a modified fatty acid pattern in the USA. By 2019, the beans will be grown on 14,000 hectares.

Hidden risks of gene scissors

In its report, Testbiotech describes which changes in the genetic material can be caused by new genetic engineering processes. These would “differ significantly from those obtained by conventional breeding”. Gene scissors such as CRISPR/Cas could change entire gene families at once, which would be difficult or impossible to achieve with conventional breeding. The risks associated with these changes are correspondingly greater. However, these risks are hidden in the assessment by APHIS.

The authority merely checks whether the genetically modified organisms represent a source of danger for the transmission of plant diseases or whether they can be regarded as harmful weeds. “The risks of genetically modified organisms must be examined in detail in each individual case,” says Testbiotech Managing Director Christoph Then.

Demand for an international GMO register

But in order to assess the risk and prevent unauthorised marketing within the EU, an international register of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is needed. Alexander Hissting, Managing Director Association Food without Genetic Engineering, argues that all plants and animals produced using new genetic engineering must also be registered there: “A suitable framework for this would be the international agreement on biological diversity, in which a suitable database already exists.”


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