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Researchers Aim to Mend GMO Regulation... and Public Trust

Feb 25, 2015 10:57 PM EST

There's a lot of fear surrounding GMOs - fear that some experts argue is born of a certain amount of ignorance. After all, even organic foods have been genetically tampered with in their own right. Now, a new survey of common crops has found that a great deal of modern GM foods wouldn't even fall under many GMO regulations currently in place, prompting experts to argue that these should be updated to ensure safety and encourage trust in GM crops alike.

"Modern genome editing technology has allowed for far more efficient gene modification, potentially impacting future agriculture," Tetsuya Ishii, a researcher at Hokkaido University's Office of Health and Safety, who helped lead the study, said in a statement. "However, genome editing raises a regulatory issue by creating indistinct boundaries in GMO regulations because the advanced genetic engineering can, without introducing new genetic material, make a gene modification which is similar to a naturally occurring mutation."

What Ishii is talking about here is genomic editing, and it's not all that different than what happens during natural selection. Instead of introducing new foreign genes transgenically - creating crops that boast characteristics that nature could never create - editing simply allows researchers to sift through gene combinations within a preexisting genome to select the ones they want expressed.

"The simple avoidance of introducing foreign genes makes genetically edited crops more 'natural' than transgenic crops obtained by inserting foreign genes," Chidananda Nagamangala Kanchiswamy of the Istituto Agrario San Michele in Italy, explained in a past statement.

And we're already seeing this technology used in the United States - a country whose regulators, you might be surprised to learn, are extremely stringent about which GM foods reach its people. Currently, the country only permits the distribution of nine lab-made crops.

The latest is the J.R. Simplot Company's "Innate potato" which was modified to help prevent bruising during shipping and have lower levels of asparagine - a natural amino acid that can be turned into a suspected human carcinogen when exposed to flash frying.

And while having a potato on hand for non-cancerous French fries sure sounds like a good thing, it's important to note that it's still a GM crop, making it a member of a group that many are worried about. (Scroll to read on...)

"Genome editing technology is advancing rapidly; therefore it is timely to review the regulatory system for plant breeding by genome editing," Ishii added.

Specifically, the researcher and his colleagues found that under current regulations, a GMO is a living organism that has been altered with the introduction of a transgene. With new editing strategies doing away with this need, many experimental crops could suddenly be freed of federal supervision.

And while it's fair to say that most scientists are responsible people, this could still spell disaster if a genetically superior crop found its way into the natural world.

Nature World News previously reported how some scientists want to improve photosynthesis in plants, unlocking the full potential of the natural mechanism. If these experimental plants, for instance, were to find their way into the wild, they would wreak havoc on ecosystems, out-competing even the strongest of natural flora simply because of their remarkable efficiency.

To avoid such a scenario, Ishii and his colleagues are proposing that new lab-edited crops are designated under the most intense of regulations, with limitations becoming gradually relaxed as time goes on and demand for new food sources increases.

"Moreover, we need to clarify the differences between older genetic engineering techniques and modern genome editing, and shed light on various issues towards social acceptance of genome edited crops," the researchers concluded.

And acceptance of GM crops under the right regulation, of course, couldn't be a bad thing. After all, it has been previously projected that the world's demand for food is set to increase by two-thirds by mid-century, even as climate change and salinity are robbing the globe of its farmland.

The survey and recommendation written by Ishii and his team can be found in the latest issue of Trends in Plant Science.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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