canola plants

As we mentioned in our last post, breeding techniques don’t have to be low-tech in order to be non-GMO, but we hear from many of you that some modern takes on traditional breeding techniques don’t always feel completely natural. Quite a few of you would like to learn about mutation breeding this week, so let’s talk about mutagenesis!

Mutation breeding, or mutagenesis, is an example of a traditional breeding technique. It’s a way farmers and crop scientists can improve crops without using GMOs. Mutagenesis involves exposing seeds to radiation or certain chemicals in order to create random mutations. It is typically used to speed up natural processes; crop breeders can induce many random mutations and then select the most useful mutations for future cross-breeding rather than waiting for multiple generations for those mutations to occur on their own.

Some Mutagenesis is Biotechnology; Some is Not. 

Random mutagenesis does not involve in vitro nucleic acid techniques, so it is not genetic engineering and the end result is not a GMO. However, new genetic engineering techniques have encroached into this territory. It can be tricky to understand where the line is drawn. 

As a reminder, a GMO is an organism in which the genetic material has been changed through biotechnology using In vitro nucleic acid techniques or fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family. In plain language, that means modern biotechnology involves directly editing DNA (genetic information) in glassware in a laboratory or mixing DNA from different species that couldn’t reproduce on their own.

Random mutagenesis does not involve in vitro nucleic acid techniques or fusion of cells beyond their taxonomic family, so it does not meet the definition of biotechnology. Products of random mutagenesis are not GMOs!

But What About Directed Mutagenesis?

Directed mutagenesis, such as oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis (ODM), only ever happens in vitro. ODM involves the insertion of new DNA that mimics a portion of the plant’s genome and is incorporated via the cell’s own repair function. This allows scientists to intentionally induce a mutation by inserting oligonucleotides at a specific place in the DNA. It always involves biotechnology, so products of ODM are always GMOs. 

This means that inputs made with ODM are not eligible to be Non-GMO Project Verified; they are not allowed under the Non-GMO Project Standard. At present time, the only ODM crop that is widely commercially available is an ODM canola variety. This new GMO is listed on the Non-GMO Project’s High-Risk List

New GMOs are Coming Soon

Products of new genetic engineering techniques such as ODM are not especially prevalent in consumer goods at this time, but they are poised to flood the market soon. In the United States, the FDA promotes these GMOs, explicitly works to “advance” biotechnology, and “is committed to supporting innovation” in biotechnology. Meanwhile, the USDA created regulations that largely exempt products of new genetic engineering techniques from the forthcoming labeling law. The current administration even released an executive order directing regulatory bodies to streamline the already-lax review process.

While the European Union has committed to regulating new GMOs just like the older ones, it is clear that the current governments of Canada and the United States are interested in promoting biotechnology and limiting any regulation of new types of GMOs. This makes the Non-GMO Project’s role even more important; the Project and its full-time team of researchers keep a watchful eye on these new techniques in order to keep them out of our non-GMO food supply. Look for the Butterfly to avoid all types of GMOs!

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