Biotechnology

In a big win for the biotech industry, the US Department of Agriculture says once and for all it won’t regulate plants whose genomes have been altered using gene-editing technology.

Why it’s a field day: The decision means that we could see a boom in newfangled plants from firms like Monsanto, universities, and startups like Calyxt, whose oil-altered soybeans featured in our cover story late last year.

Here’s the logic: The USDA says gene editing is just a (much) faster form of breeding. So long as a genetic alteration could have been bred into a plant, it won’t be regulated. That includes changes that create immunity to disease or natural resistance to crop chemicals, as well as edits to make seeds bigger and heavier. It doesn’t include transgenic plants (those with a gene from a distant species)—those will still be regulated. 

Problems ahead: Trade in major crops is a global affair. Unless Europe and China agree with the US, exports of CRISPR plants could yet be blocked.

Crop Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly said the USDA had intended to regulate gene-edited plants more aggressively under an Obama-era proposed rule. Not so, says Richard Coker, a USDA spokesman.