I wasn’t familiar with the term “genetically edited food” until I read an NPR feature last week about genetically edited mushrooms. While it may seem like genetically edited food is another way to say genetically modified food, editing is not the same as modifying, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Genetically modified foods (GMOs) have had their genes altered in some way. Genetically modified salmon, for instance, has had its genes modified to grow faster than natural salmon. GMO salmon can grow to full size in 18 months. Non-GMO salmon take three years to grow to full size. The purpose of genetically modified food, whether it’s an animal or plant, is to introduce a new, desirable trait to the organism. (And yes, what’s desirable depends on who you talk to.)
A genetically edited organism does not have a gene altered to introduce a new trait. Instead, it has a gene taken away using a four-year-old technology called CRISPR. In the case of the mushroom mentioned earlier, Yinong Yang, a Penn State researcher, snipped out “a tiny piece of DNA from one particular gene in a white button mushroom,” NPR reports. With that gene gone, the mushroom produces less of the enzyme polyphenol oxidase, making the mushroom brown more slowly. An undesirable trait was removed from the organism.
Yang asked the USDA if his genetically edited mushrooms would be regulated as a GMO. The government agency said since no new DNA was introduced, and there is no evidence the edited white button mushrooms would bring any problems with weeds or become a pest to other plants, the USDA does not need to regulate them.
I’ve seen several headlines since the NPR report last week that claim genetically edited foods will not be regulated. That’s inaccurate. The USDA said it would not regulate these mushrooms, but the agency ended the letter to Yang with the following statement: “Please be advised that your white button mushroom variety described in your letter may still be subject to other regulatory authorities such as the FDA or EPA.”
Whether some form of government regulation will happen for genetically edited foods hasn’t been decided. This mushroom is the first food created using this technique, according to The Washington Post. The company that paid for the mushroom research has no immediate plans to sell the mushrooms. There’s a lot more work and government scrutiny before a genetically edited food comes on the market — regulated or not.
At least, let’s hope much more government scrutiny will be done on genetic editing for food. CRISPR can be used for more than simply keeping fruits and vegetables from browning quickly. The method is also being considered as a way to remove undesirable traits in human beings, like the ability to inherit a devastating disease — something that should come only after years of testing for safety and side effects, and necessary regulations.