Signaling progress for a new kind of crop engineering, the biotech crop trait firm Cibus says it will move forward with field trials for 14 gene-edited crops including canola with a seedpod-shatter reduction trait it says will give farmers more flexibility in when they harvest.
The crops are part of this year’s batch of 70 gene-edited plants that the US Department of Agriculture says will not require the same level of testing and controls as traditional genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Last year, the first full year for current USDA guidance on gene-edited crops, only seven such crops got the green light.
According to the USDA, crops with traits that are created without using transgenes—which are genes borrowed from other species—do not meet the definition of a regulated GMO. Instead, non-transgenic gene-editing is considered a plant-breeding technology.
The precision afforded by new gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR has made it possible for many more companies to create and commercialize traits compared to older GMO practices, which require large investments and long timelines. In addition to the ag giants Corteva Agriscience and J.R. Simplot, smaller firms and start-ups including Inari Agriculture, Pairwise, and CoverCress have traits in development. A number of universities also plan to release new traits.
Cibus was founded in 2001 and has raised roughly $130 million from investors. To create or alter a plant trait, Cibus scientists use the DNA guiding and cutting ability of CRISPR to separate strands of DNA at a desired location. A gene-repair oligonucleotide then acts as a template to guide the plant’s own DNA repair system to grab and insert DNA bases needed to add the trait. The change in DNA can be as small as one base pair.
“We’re using natural processes in the plant, so the changes are indistinguishable to what would occur in a normal plant breeding program,” Cibus CEO Peter Beetham says.
In addition to the seedpod trait, Cibus’s traits include eight that boost canola’s resistance to fungal diseases, an herbicide-tolerance trait, and a trait to increase oleic acid content. Beetham says improvements can boost crop value and reduce fuel and pesticide use.
But critics of GMO crops are skeptical that gene-edited crops will bring value to consumers or benefit the environment. Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center For Food Safety, says herbicide-tolerance traits have greatly increased use of chemical weedkillers and sped the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Furthermore, Freese says, developers have for 30 years promised GMO crops that feed the hungry, reduce pressure on the planet, and improve nutrition but have not delivered. In contrast, he points to work by traditional plant-breeders, many from public research institutions, to create better crops—including drought-resistant corn varieties for farmers in Africa.