A corn crop being analysed (representational image)
A corn crop being analysed (representational image)| Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
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US and Europe, however, have contrasting policies on genetically modified crops which could possibly start a costly trade dispute.

Crispr is coming to the farm. The gene-editing tool, best known for its potential to prevent disease and fight cancer, is now being used to improve corn, wheat, rice, mushrooms and much else. It could lead to hardier, more plentiful crops and tastier, cheaper, more nutritious food. The problem is that Europe and the US are both pursuing flawed approaches to regulating products made with Crispr — and could well impede its progress.

Crispr is a kind of molecular scissors that scientists can use to change or delete DNA sequences easily and cheaply. It’s being wielded in plant genes to create desired new traits — resistance to disease, for instance, or tolerance to drought. Theoretically, this is merely a faster way of achieving what farmers have long accomplished with traditional techniques, such as seed selection, cross-breeding or mutagenesis.

Even so, Europe is likely to impose a rigorous approval process on crops created with Crispr, on the theory that it lacks a long enough track record to be safe. Although well-meaning, this is shortsighted. There’s no reason to assume crops modified by Crispr would be inherently more dangerous than any other. And overzealous regulation could hinder the development of a promising new technology, much as it has discouraged the use of genetically modified seeds in Europe.

The US, on the other hand, will require no pre-market authorisation at all for most gene-edited plants. This is equally misguided. It will do nothing to reassure a concerned public that the crops are safe. And it ignores what risks do exist: It’s conceivable, for instance, that new seeds could lead to foods that trigger allergic reactions, or crops whose robust characteristics get passed along in nature, creating tenacious new varieties of weeds.

Both these approaches, moreover, run counter to public opinion on crop biotechnology, which tends to be nuanced and open-minded about the value of scientific progress in agriculture. While about one in five Americans reject all GM foods and roughly the same number don’t care at all, most are willing to weigh the risks and benefits. This calls for regulatory flexibility.

Europe and the US also know from experience how their pursuit of contrasting policies on genetically modified crops can foment costly trade disputes. In 2006, the World Trade Organization intervened in a long-running fight when it ruled that Europe had defied international trade rules by imposing a de facto ban on importing GM crops. Repeating such a quarrel over Crispr wouldn’t help anyone.

A far better approach, then, is the middle course. Rather than prejudge the products of biotechnology, regulators should screen new plants and single out those that might need special monitoring or restrictions. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration does something similar on a voluntary basis for foods made from plants with engineered proteins. Companies submit data about their new products, and if the FDA decides it has no further questions, they can claim their foods are “generally recognised as safe.”

Such a process should be required, rather than voluntary, when it comes to crops created with Crispr. This would help assure consumers that the food system is being properly supervised, and that the products they buy contain no unknown or unsafe ingredients. It would allow Crispr to work its magic unimpeded by excessive regulation. And it would smooth the way for better crops and better food — to everyone’s benefit. – Bloomberg

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