The US Department of Agriculture issued an official policy statement this week stating that crop varieties that have been genetically edited using CRISPR technology will not face special regulations. The department has already been allowing CRISPR edited crops for the last two years, but this week’s statement solidifies and clarifies the policy. The agency specified that CRISPR edited plants will not be specially regulated as long as they include modifications that could have been achieved, more gradually, through traditional crossbreeding techniques.

CRISPR is a technique for editing the sequence of DNA in cells, using a protein called Cas9. The technology was adapted from defense systems used by bacteria to destroy the DNA of viruses and other invaders. By using these same techniques in larger, more complex organisms, scientists are able to edit their genes in beneficial ways.

According to a statement from the agency:

“USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests. The newest of these methods, such as genome editing, expand traditional plant breeding tools because they can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers.”

The USDA has already approved a white-button mushroom that has been edited to take longer to turn brown, and Camelina sativa, an oilseed plant that has been modified for enhanced omega-3 oil.

In an interview published in the journal Nature, Yield10 BioScience CEO Oliver Peoples praised the move, noting that his company would have had to spend tens of millions of dollars and six years on testing to put their edited camelina through the traditional regulatory process.

According to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue:

“Plant breeding innovation holds enormous promise for helping protect crops against drought and diseases while increasing nutritional value and eliminating allergens. Using this science, farmers can continue to meet consumer expectations for healthful, affordable food produced in a manner that consumes fewer natural resources. This new innovation will help farmers do what we aspire to do at USDA: do right and feed everyone.”

While such crops have yet to become available in stores, the USDA decision suggests this may not be the case for long.

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