New Genetic Engineering: Confusion about method of plant identification

Oilseed rape produced by Cibus can be tracked and traced

11 September 2020 / A recent publication has shown that a method of identifying oilseed rape plants produced by the US company, Cibus, can be used to distinguish it from other oilseed varieties. Until now, it was often assumed that this was not possible. The Cibus oilseed rape is resistant to the same herbicide as an oilseed rape produced by BASF. While BASF maintains that their plants are derived from conventional ‘random mutagenesis’, Cibus conducted experiments with new GE techniques. Some years ago, the company also submitted applications to conduct field trials in several countries in the EU with such plants. The paper recently published in the ’Foods’ journal has revealed that available technology can be used to develop specific methods to identify and distinguish the different oilseed rape varieties.

As the authors explain, the Cibus plants shows a specific alteration in its DNA that makes identification possible. This refutes previous assumptions that there is no way to track and trace these plants, e.g. from unintended imports.

However, the authors also make it very clear that their method cannot be used to verify the specific technique applied to develop the plants. Nonetheless, this very point is being very strongly emphasised in various comments and communications. This is in part leading to the false impression that the authors had maintained it can be used to generally prove the application of new genetic engineering techniques. In this context, some stakeholders are accusing Testbiotech of making false statements even though Testbiotech was in no way involved in the publication. Such confusion appears to be partly deliberate and intended as a distraction from the fact that, for the first time, a method to identify and quantify the Cibus plants has been developed and applied.

In general, it is commonly recognised that it is very often not possible solely on the basis of DNA sequence analysis to identify the exact new or old GE methods applied to the plants. For this reason, EU regulation requests mandatory approval processes for all GE organisms. Applications for market approval have to include an exact description of the genetic changes as well as the applied processes. Suitable methods of identifying the plants must also be made available. The recent publication shows that such methods of identification are indeed technically feasible.

GE allows circumvention of natural mechanisms of gene regulation and genome organisation; therefore, the respective risks of each organism have to be investigated in each and every case. Methods to track and trace the plants are needed, amongst others, to prevent uncontrolled spread in the environment. Moreover, such plants and, where applicable, foods, might need to be removed from the market if harm to people or the environment is observed, or where there is no longer any economic interest. Adequate control would be hardly possible without access to suitable methods. 

Cibus has so far not applied for approval of its oilseed rape in the EU and, therefore, there is as yet no information on suitable methods of identification. The oilseed rape is currently grown in North America where the there is an absence of regulations that would be required in the EU. This has already caused consequences for the environment: the lack of GE regulation in the US has led to several previous cases of uncontrolled spread of GE oilseed rape, while in the EU this has so far been largely avoided.

Meanwhile, around 80 plants developed with new GE techniques have been deregulated by the US FDA. Most of them inherit much more complex genetic alterations compared to the Cibus plants. This highlights the urgent need for specific track and trace methods even if, so far, very few of them have reached the market.

The missing data on the GE method and type of genetic change that Cibus used to develop the oilseed rape has already created further confusion in relation to the new publication in the ‘Foods’ journal. There is an ongoing debate about whether the Cibus plants were actually developed using new genetic engineering methods at all.

In conclusion, this case shows that without sufficient data substantial confusion is likely to emerge. Therefore, the EU has to make sure that also in future clear regulation and sufficient controls are in enforced.

Christoph Then, Tel +49 151 54638040,