Image of oranges in the bed of a truck

CRISPR’d Food, Coming Soon to a Supermarket Near You

This week the USDA announced it has no plans to regulate gene-editing technologies like Crispr, opening the door to a boom in designer foods.

For years now, the US Department of Agriculture has been flirting with the latest and greatest DNA manipulation technologies. Since 2016, it has given free passes to at least a dozen gene-edited crops, ruling that they fall outside its regulatory purview. But on Wednesday, March 28, the agency made its relationship status official; effective immediately, certain gene-edited plants can be designed, cultivated, and sold free from regulation. “With this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

The agency’s logic goes like this: Gene editing is basically a (much, much, much) faster form of breeding. So long as a genetic alteration could have been bred in a plant—say a simple deletion, base pair swap, or insertion from a reproductively compatible relative—it won’t be regulated. Think, changes that create immunity to diseases, hardiness under tough weather conditions, or bigger, better, tastier fruits and seeds. If you want to stick in genes from distant species, you still have to jump through all the hoops.

The move shouldn’t come as a shock, given the agency’s recent overtures. But it is a big deal, shaving years and tens of millions of dollars off the cost of developing a designer plant, and enabling smaller startups and public institutions to enter the market. Traditional genetic modification—and all its attendant red tape—has limited research to commodity crops like corn, soy, and wheat. Now, specialty crops, even ones with teeny tiny markets, are suddenly worth developing. You no longer have to be a Monsanto or a Dow DuPont Pioneer to take your custom cultivar into the grocery aisles of America.




UC Berkeley



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