What’s the Right Way to Regulate Gene-Edited Crops?
In the next few decades, humanity faces its biggest food crisis since the invention of the plow. The planet's population, currently 7.6 billion, is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050; to avoid mass famine, according to the World Resource Institute, we'll need to produce 70 percent more calories than we do today.
Imagine that a cheap, easy-to-use, and rapidly deployable technology could make crops more fertile and strengthen their resistance to threats.
Meanwhile, climate change will bring intensifying assaults by heat, drought, storms, pests, and weeds, depressing farm yields around the globe. Epidemics of plant disease—already laying waste to wheat, citrus, bananas, coffee, and cacao in many regions—will spread ever further through the vectors of modern trade and transportation.
So here's a thought experiment: Imagine that a cheap, easy-to-use, and rapidly deployable technology could make crops more fertile and strengthen their resistance to these looming threats. Imagine that it could also render them more nutritious and tastier, with longer shelf lives and less vulnerability to damage in shipping—adding enhancements to human health and enjoyment, as well as reduced food waste, to the possible benefits.
Finally, imagine that crops bred with the aid of this tool might carry dangers. Some could contain unsuspected allergens or toxins. Others might disrupt ecosystems, affecting the behavior or very survival of other species, or infecting wild relatives with their altered DNA.
Now ask yourself: If such a technology existed, should policymakers encourage its adoption, or ban it due to the risks? And if you chose the former alternative, how should crops developed by this method be regulated?
In fact, this technology does exist, though its use remains mostly experimental. It's called gene editing, and in the past five years it has emerged as a potentially revolutionary force in many areas—among them, treating cancer and genetic disorders; growing transplantable human organs in pigs; controlling malaria-spreading mosquitoes; and, yes, transforming agriculture. Several versions are currently available, the newest and nimblest of which goes by the acronym CRISPR.
Gene editing is far simpler and more efficient than older methods used to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Unlike those methods, moreover, it can be used in ways that leave no foreign genes in the target organism—an advantage that proponents argue should comfort anyone leery of consuming so-called "Frankenfoods." But debate persists over what precautions must be taken before these crops come to market.
Recently, two of the world's most powerful regulatory bodies offered very different answers to that question. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared in March 2018 that it "does not currently regulate, or have any plans to regulate" plants that are developed through most existing methods of gene editing. The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), by contrast, ruled in July that such crops should be governed by the same stringent regulations as conventional GMOs.
Some experts suggest that the broadly permissive American approach and the broadly restrictive EU policy are equally flawed.
Each announcement drew protests, for opposite reasons. Anti-GMO activists assailed the USDA's statement, arguing that all gene-edited crops should be tested and approved before marketing. "You don't know what those mutations or rearrangements might do in a plant," warned Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with the advocacy group Consumers Union. Biotech boosters griped that the ECJ's decision would stifle innovation and investment. "By any sensible standard, this judgment is illogical and absurd," wrote the British newspaper The Observer.
Yet some experts suggest that the broadly permissive American approach and the broadly restrictive EU policy are equally flawed. "What's behind these regulatory decisions is not science," says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, a former advisor to the World Economic Forum, who has researched and written extensively on governance issues in biotechnology. "It's politics, economics, and culture."
The U.S. Welcomes Gene-Edited Food
Humans have been modifying the genomes of plants and animals for 10,000 years, using selective breeding—a hit-or-miss method that can take decades or more to deliver rewards. In the mid-20th century, we learned to speed up the process by exposing organisms to radiation or mutagenic chemicals. But it wasn't until the 1980s that scientists began modifying plants by altering specific stretches of their DNA.
Today, about 90 percent of the corn, cotton and soybeans planted in the U.S. are GMOs; such crops cover nearly 4 million square miles (10 million square kilometers) of land in 29 countries. Most of these plants are transgenic, meaning they contain genes from an unrelated species—often as biologically alien as a virus or a fish. Their modifications are designed primarily to boost profit margins for mechanized agribusiness: allowing crops to withstand herbicides so that weeds can be controlled by mass spraying, for example, or to produce their own pesticides to lessen the need for chemical inputs.
In the early days, the majority of GM crops were created by extracting the gene for a desired trait from a donor organism, multiplying it, and attaching it to other snippets of DNA—usually from a microbe called an agrobacterium—that could help it infiltrate the cells of the target plant. Biotechnologists injected these particles into the target, hoping at least one would land in a place where it would perform its intended function; if not, they kept trying. The process was quicker than conventional breeding, but still complex, scattershot, and costly.
Because agrobacteria can cause plant tumors, Kuzma explains, policymakers in the U.S. decided to regulate GMO crops under an existing law, the Plant Pest Act of 1957, which addressed dangers like imported trees infested with invasive bugs. Every GMO containing the DNA of agrobacterium or another plant pest had to be tested to see whether it behaved like a pest, and undergo a lengthy approval process. By 2010, however, new methods had been developed for creating GMOs without agrobacteria; such plants could typically be marketed without pre-approval.
Soon after that, the first gene-edited crops began appearing. If old-school genetic engineering was a shotgun, techniques like TALEN and CRISPR were a scalpel—or the search-and-replace function on a computer program. With CRISPR/Cas9, for example, an enzyme that bacteria use to recognize and chop up hostile viruses is reprogrammed to find and snip out a desired bit of a plant or other organism's DNA. The enzyme can also be used to insert a substitute gene. If a DNA sequence is simply removed, or the new gene comes from a similar species, the changes in the target plant's genotype and phenotype (its general characteristics) may be no different from those that could be produced through selective breeding. If a foreign gene is added, the plant becomes a transgenic GMO.
Companies are already teeing up gene-edited products for the U.S. market, like a cooking oil and waxy corn.
This development, along with the emergence of non-agrobacterium GMOs, eventually prompted the USDA to propose a tiered regulatory system for all genetically engineered crops, beginning with an initial screening for potentially hazardous metaboloids or ecological impacts. (The screening was intended, in part, to guard against the "off-target effects"—stray mutations—that occasionally appear in gene-edited organisms.) If no red flags appeared, the crop would be approved; otherwise, it would be subject to further review, and possible regulation.
The plan was unveiled in January 2017, during the last week of the Obama presidency. Then, under the Trump administration, it was shelved. Although the USDA continues to promise a new set of regulations, the only hint of what they might contain has been Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue's statement last March that gene-edited plants would remain unregulated if they "could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques, as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests."
Because transgenic plants could not be "developed through traditional breeding techniques," this statement could be taken to mean that gene editing in which foreign DNA is introduced might actually be regulated. But because the USDA regulates conventional transgenic GMOs only if they trigger the plant-pest stipulation, experts assume gene-edited crops will face similarly limited oversight.
Meanwhile, companies are already teeing up gene-edited products for the U.S. market. An herbicide-resistant oilseed rape, developed using a proprietary technique, has been available since 2016. A cooking oil made from TALEN-tweaked soybeans, designed to have a healthier fatty-acid profile, is slated for release within the next few months. A CRISPR-edited "waxy" corn, designed with a starch profile ideal for processed foods, should be ready by 2021.
In all likelihood, none of these products will have to be tested for safety.
In the E.U., Stricter Rules Apply
Now let's look at the European Union. Since the late 1990s, explains Gregory Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the EU has had a "process-based trigger" for genetically engineered products: "If you use recombinant DNA, you are going to be regulated." All foods and animal feeds must be approved and labeled if they consist of or contain more than 0.9 percent GM ingredients. (In the U.S., "disclosure" of GM ingredients is mandatory, if someone asks, but labeling is not required.) The only GM crop that can be commercially grown in EU member nations is a type of insect-resistant corn, though some countries allow imports.
European scientists helped develop gene editing, and they—along with the continent's biotech entrepreneurs—have been busy developing applications for crops. But European farmers seem more divided over the technology than their American counterparts. The main French agricultural trades union, for example, supports research into non-transgenic gene editing and its exemption from GMO regulation. But it was the country's small-farmers' union, the Confédération Paysanne, along with several allied groups, that in 2015 submitted a complaint to the ECJ, asking that all plants produced via mutagenesis—including gene-editing—be regulated as GMOs.
At this point, it should be mentioned that in the past 30 years, large population studies have found no sign that consuming GM foods is harmful to human health. GMO critics can, however, point to evidence that herbicide-resistant crops have encouraged overuse of herbicides, giving rise to poison-proof "superweeds," polluting the environment with suspected carcinogens, and inadvertently killing beneficial plants. Those allegations were key to the French plaintiffs' argument that gene-edited crops might similarly do unexpected harm. (Disclosure: Leapsmag's parent company, Bayer, recently acquired Monsanto, a maker of herbicides and herbicide-resistant seeds. Also, Leaps by Bayer, an innovation initiative of Bayer and Leapsmag's direct founder, has funded a biotech startup called JoynBio that aims to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer required to grow crops.)
The ruling was "scientifically nonsensical. It's because of things like this that I'll never go back to Europe."
In the end, the EU court found in the Confédération's favor on gene editing—though the court maintained the regulatory exemption for mutagenesis induced by chemicals or radiation, citing the 'long safety record' of those methods.
The ruling was "scientifically nonsensical," fumes Rodolphe Barrangou, a French food scientist who pioneered CRISPR while working for DuPont in Wisconsin and is now a professor at NC State. "It's because of things like this that I'll never go back to Europe."
Nonetheless, the decision was consistent with longstanding EU policy on crops made with recombinant DNA. Given the difficulty and expense of getting such products through the continent's regulatory system, many other European researchers may wind up following Barrangou to America.
Getting to the Root of the Cultural Divide
What explains the divergence between the American and European approaches to GMOs—and, by extension, gene-edited crops? In part, Jennifer Kuzma speculates, it's that Europeans have a different attitude toward eating. "They're generally more tied to where their food comes from, where it's produced," she notes. They may also share a mistrust of government assurances on food safety, borne of the region's Mad Cow scandals of the 1980s and '90s. In Catholic countries, consumers may have misgivings about tinkering with the machinery of life.
But the principal factor, Kuzma argues, is that European and American agriculture are structured differently. "GM's benefits have mostly been designed for large-scale industrial farming and commodity crops," she says. That kind of farming is dominant in the U.S., but not in Europe, leading to a different balance of political power. In the EU, there was less pressure on decisionmakers to approve GMOs or exempt gene-edited crops from regulation—and more pressure to adopt a GM-resistant stance.
Such dynamics may be operating in other regions as well. In China, for example, the government has long encouraged research in GMOs; a state-owned company recently acquired Syngenta, a Swiss-based multinational corporation that is a leading developer of GM and gene-edited crops. GM animal feed and cooking oil can be freely imported. Yet commercial cultivation of most GM plants remains forbidden, out of deference to popular suspicions of genetically altered food. "As a new item, society has debates and doubts on GMO techniques, which is normal," President Xi Jinping remarked in 2014. "We must be bold in studying it, [but] be cautious promoting it."
The proper balance between boldness and caution is still being worked out all over the world. Europe's process-based approach may prevent researchers from developing crops that, with a single DNA snip, could rescue millions from starvation. EU regulations will also make it harder for small entrepreneurs to challenge Big Ag with a technology that, as Barrangou puts it, "can be used affordably, quickly, scalably, by anyone, without even a graduate degree in genetics." America's product-based approach, conversely, may let crops with hidden genetic dangers escape detection. And by refusing to investigate such risks, regulators may wind up exacerbating consumers' doubts about GM and gene-edited products, rather than allaying them.
"Science...can't tell you what to regulate. That's a values-based decision."
Perhaps the solution lies in combining both approaches, and adding some flexibility and nuance to the mix. "I don't believe in regulation by the product or the process," says CSPI's Jaffe. "I think you need both." Deleting a DNA base pair to silence a gene, for example, might be less risky than inserting a foreign gene into a plant—unless the deletion enables the production of an allergen, and the transgene comes from spinach.
Kuzma calls for the creation of "cooperative governance networks" to oversee crop genome editing, similar to bodies that already help develop and enforce industry standards in fisheries, electronics, industrial cleaning products, and (not incidentally) organic agriculture. Such a network could include farmers, scientists, advocacy groups, private companies, and governmental agencies. "Safety isn't an all-or-nothing concept," Kuzma says. "Science can tell you what some of the issues are in terms of risk and benefit, but it can't tell you what to regulate. That's a values-based decision."
By drawing together a wide range of stakeholders to make such decisions, she adds, "we're more likely to anticipate future consequences, and to develop a robust approach—one that not only seems more legitimate to people, but is actually just plain old better."
Story by Big Think
Our gut microbiome plays a substantial role in our health and well-being. Most research, however, focuses on bacteria, rather than the viruses that hide within them. Now, research from the University of Copenhagen, newly published in Nature Microbiology, found that people who live past age 100 have a greater diversity of bacteria-infecting viruses in their intestines than younger people. Furthermore, they found that the viruses are linked to changes in bacterial metabolism that may support mucosal integrity and resistance to pathogens.
The microbiota and aging
In the early 1970s, scientists discovered that the composition of our gut microbiota changes as we age. Recent studies have found that the changes are remarkably predictable and follow a pattern: The microbiota undergoes rapid, dramatic changes as toddlers transition to solid foods; further changes become less dramatic during childhood as the microbiota strikes a balance between the host and the environment; and as that balance is achieved, the microbiota remains mostly stable during our adult years (ages 18-60). However, that stability is lost as we enter our elderly years, and the microbiome undergoes dramatic reorganization. This discovery led scientists to question what causes this change and what effect it has on health.
Centenarians have a distinct gut community enriched in microorganisms that synthesize potent antimicrobial molecules that can kill multidrug-resistant pathogens.
“We are always eager to find out why some people live extremely long lives. Previous research has shown that the intestinal bacteria of old Japanese citizens produce brand-new molecules that make them resistant to pathogenic — that is, disease-promoting — microorganisms. And if their intestines are better protected against infection, well, then that is probably one of the things that cause them to live longer than others,” said Joachim Johansen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen.
In 2021, a team of Japanese scientists set out to characterize the effect of this change on older people’s health. They specifically wanted to determine if people who lived to be over 100 years old — that is, centenarians — underwent changes that provided them with unique benefits. They discovered centenarians have a distinct gut community enriched in microorganisms that synthesize potent antimicrobial molecules that can kill multidrug-resistant pathogens, including Clostridioides difficile and Enterococcus faecium. In other words, the late-life shift in microbiota reduces an older person’s susceptibility to common gut pathogens.
Viruses can change alter the genes of bacteria
Although the late-in-life microbiota change could be beneficial to health, it remained unclear what facilitated this shift. To solve this mystery, Johansen and his colleagues turned their attention to an often overlooked member of the microbiome: viruses. “Our intestines contain billions of viruses living inside bacteria, and they could not care less about human cells; instead, they infect the bacterial cells. And seeing as there are hundreds of different types of bacteria in our intestines, there are also lots of bacterial viruses,” said Simon Rasmussen, Johansen’s research advisor.
Centenarians had a more diverse virome, including previously undescribed viral genera.
For decades, scientists have explored the possibility of phage therapy — that is, using viruses that infect bacteria (called bacteriophages or simply phages) to kill pathogens. However, bacteriophages can also enhance the bacteria they infect. For example, they can provide genes that help their bacterial host attack other bacteria or provide new metabolic capabilities. Both of these can change which bacteria colonize the gut and, in turn, protect against certain disease states.
Intestinal viruses give bacteria new abilities
Johansen and his colleagues were interested in what types of viruses centenarians had in their gut and whether those viruses carried genes that altered metabolism. They compared fecal samples of healthy centenarians (100+ year-olds) with samples from younger patients (18-100 year-olds). They found that the centenarians had a more diverse virome, including previously undescribed viral genera.
They also revealed an enrichment of genes supporting key steps in the sulfate metabolic pathway. The authors speculate that this translates to increased levels of microbially derived sulfide, which may lead to health-promoting outcomes, such as supporting mucosal integrity and resistance to potential pathogens.
“We have learned that if a virus pays a bacterium a visit, it may actually strengthen the bacterium. The viruses we found in the healthy Japanese centenarians contained extra genes that could boost the bacteria,” said Johansen.
Simon Rasmussen added, “If you discover bacteria and viruses that have a positive effect on the human intestinal flora, the obvious next step is to find out whether only some or all of us have them. If we are able to get these bacteria and their viruses to move in with the people who do not have them, more people could benefit from them.”
It’s no easy task these days for people to pick the scientists they should follow. According to a recent poll by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 39 percent of Americans have a "great deal" of confidence in the scientific community. The finding is similar to Pew research last year showing that 29 percent of Americans have this level of confidence in medical scientists.
Not helping: All the money in science. Just 20 percent of Pew’s survey respondents think scientists are transparent about conflicts of interest with industry. While this issue is common to many fields, the recent gold rush to foot the bill for research on therapies for healthy aging may be contributing to the overall sense of distrust. “There’s a feeling that at some point, the FDA may actually designate aging as a disease,” said Pam Maher, a neuroscientist who studies aging at Salk Institute. “That may be another impetus for a lot of these companies to start up.”
But partnering with companies is an important incentive for researchers across biomedical fields. Many scientists – with and without financial ties and incentives – are honest, transparent and doing important, inspiring work. I asked more than a dozen bioethicists and researchers in aging how to spot the scientists who are searching for the truth more than money, ego or fame.
Avoid Scientists Who Sound Overly Confident in messaging to the public. Some multi-talented scientists are adept at publishing in both top journals and media outlets. They’re great at dropping science without the confusing jargon, in ways the public can enjoy and learn from.
But do they talk in simple soundbites, painting scientific debates in pastels or black and white when colleagues use shades of gray? Maybe they crave your attention more than knowledge seeking. “When scientists speak in a very unnuanced way, that can be irresponsible,” said Josephine Johnston, a bioethicist at the Hastings Center.
Scientists should avoid exaggerations like “without a doubt” and even “we know” – unless they absolutely do. “I feel like there’s more and more hyperbole and attention seeking…[In aging research,] the loudest voices in the room are the fringe people,” said the biogenerontologist Matt Kaeberlein.
Separate Hype from Passion. Scientists should be, need to be passionate, Johnston explained. In the realm of aging, for example, Leonard Guarente, an MIT biologist and pioneer in the field of aging, told me about his belief that longer lifespans would make for a better world.
Instead of expecting scientists to be lab-dwelling robots, we should welcome their passion. It fuels scientific dedication and creativity. Fields like aging, AI and gene editing inspire the imaginations of the public and scientists alike. That’s not a bad thing.
But it does lay fertile ground for overstatements, such as claims by some that the first 1,000-year-old has already been born. If it sounds like sci-fi, it’s probably sci-fi.
Watch Out for Cult Behavior, some experts told me. Follow scientists who mix it up and engage in debates, said NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan, not those who hang out only with researchers in the same ideological camp.
Look for whether they’re open to working with colleagues who don’t share their views. Through collaboration, they can resolve conflicting study results and data, said Danica Chen, a biologist at UC Berkeley. We should trust science as long as it doesn’t trust itself.
Messiness is Good. You want to find and follow scientists who’ve published research over the years that does not tell a clean story. “Our goal is to disprove our models,” Kaeberlein said. Scientific findings and views should zig and zag as their careers – and science – progress.
Follow scientists who write and talk publicly about new evidence that’s convinced them to reevaluate their own positions. Who embrace the inherent messiness of science – that’s the hallmark of an honest researcher.
The flipside is a very linear publishing history. Some scientists have a pet theory they’ve managed to support with more and more evidence over time, like a bricklayer gradually, flawlessly building the prettiest house in the neighborhood. Too pretty.
There’s a dark side to this charming simplicity: scientists sometimes try and succeed at engineering the very findings they’re hoping to get, said Charles Brenner, a biochemist at City of Hope National Medical Center.
These scientists “try to prove their model and ignore data that doesn’t fit their model because everybody likes a clean story,” Kaeberlein said. “People want to become famous,” said Samuel Klein, a biologist at Washington University. “So there’s always that bias to try to get positive results.”
Don’t Overvalue Credentials. Just because a scientist works at a top university doesn’t mean they’re completely trustworthy. “The institution means almost nothing,” Kaeberlein said.
Same goes for publishing in top journals, Kaeberlein added. “There’s an incentive structure that favors poor quality science and irreproducible results in high profile journals.”
Traditional proxies for credibility aren’t quite as reliable these days. Shortcuts don’t cut it anymore; you’ve got to scrutinize the actual research the scientist is producing. “You have to look at the literature and try to interpret it for yourself,” said Rafael de Cabo, a scientist at the National Institute on Aging, run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Or find journalists you trust to distill this information for you, Klein suggested.
Consider Company Ties. Companies can help scientists bring their research to the public more directly and efficiently than the slower grind of academia, where “the opportunities and challenges weren’t big enough for me,” said Kaeberlein, who left the University of Washington earlier this year.
"It’s generally not universities that can take technology through what we call the valley of death,” Brenner said. “There are rewards associated with taking risks.”
Many scientists are upfront about their financial conflicts of interest – sometimes out of necessity. “At a place like Duke, our conflicts of interest are very closely managed, said Matthew Hirschey, who researchers metabolism at Duke’s Molecular Physiology Institute. “We have to be incredibly explicit about our partnerships.”
But the willingness to disclose conflicts doesn’t necessarily mean the scientist is any less biased. Those conflicts can still affect their views and outcomes of their research, said Johnston, the Hastings bioethicist.
“The proof is in the pudding, and it’s got to be done by people who are not vested in making money off the results,” Klein said. Worth noting: even if scientists eschew companies, they’re almost always financially motivated to get grants for their research.
Bottom line: lots of scientists work for and with companies, and many are highly trustworthy leaders in their fields. But if a scientist is in thick with companies and checks some of the other boxes on this list, their views and research may be compromised.