Photo courtesy of Purdue University College of Agriculture / Tom Campbell.
by Sabrina Halvorson, Hoosier Ag Today radio network
Fruit and vegetable plant breeders who use gene editing are now facing more regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The agency recently increased oversight of some gene-edited crops and added to the workload and waiting time for those in the produce industry. Dr. Margaret Worthington is an Associate Professor of Horticulture at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
She is a plant breeder who works on grapes, muscadine grapes, blackberries, peaches, and nectarines. She believes the new requirements will be a bigger problem for researchers in horticulture than for those in row crops, which have more funding for research and research teams.
“None of us [in specialty crops] have a regulatory compliance team where we’ve had experience dealing with this sort of regulation before. It’s going to be very difficult to justify the expense of starting to apply gene editing work in these specialty crops where it may be a smaller acreage and you would not expect to have the potential returns to justify that investment.”
Three government agencies oversee this type of research and breeding, including the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The USDA requirements state researchers won’t need to ask for agency approval if they give a crop a trait that already exists naturally in a breeding-compatible plant.
The new EPA regulations also use that exemption but will require additional data and scientific evidence about the results of the gene editing. Worthington says that could add years and increase costs to the development of plant improvements. She gave the example of wine grapes in the Eastern U.S., which are sprayed with fungicides, she said, about a dozen times during a season.
“So, you can imagine that if you were able to stack different disease-resistance genes, you would have a huge environmental impact. You’d have the ability to reduce these sprays and that would have been a benefit to the environment. It would also have a big benefit to growers because they’re reducing the amount of fossil fuels they’re using and the times they have to go out and spray,” she said.
She explained gene editing could be beneficial in wine grapes for creating varieties that are very similar to other, more fragile plants. Cabernet Sauvignon is easily susceptible to disease, she said, and gene editing could lead to a variety that tastes the same but does not have the same vulnerabilities.
“All of these are huge potential advantages and all these investments have been made in that area, but we’re not going to actually be able to see the benefits of it now. It’s going to stay in the lab and never get out into farmer’s fields if we do all of this increased regulation,” she said. “It’s a balance between making sure that there’s risk assessment and innovation. Here, I think that it’s a proven technology. That it’s known to be safe and we’re being overly conservative and stifling innovation.”