Even in the case of browning produce, this quickly becomes clear. Scientists had already created non-browning apples and potatoes by inserting new, altered genes into the crop's DNA in order to "silence" a gene that already existed. That made them GMOs. In Yang's case, CRISPR technology was used to simply pop in and snip out a tiny piece of the mushroom's DNA, which disabled the production of an enzyme that handles mushroom browning. The result of the two methods is the same (produce that browns more slowly) but the process is different, and so, weirdly, are the governmental rules around them. In Yang's case, the USDA exempt his mushrooms from review, citing that he did not introduce new "foreign DNA," potentially setting the precedent for all CRISPR-Cas9 crops.
"Right now, if you make a genetically engineered potato, it is subject to different regulations than if you introduced the exact same gene using CRISPR. Same phenotype. Same environment. But one is regulated and one isn't. So either you're over-regulating one, or you're under-regulating one," Jaffe says. He notes that CRISPR can potentially manipulate more than just one individual strand of DNA, unlike a GMO crop, so it's confusing that they would be subject to different regulatory systems under the USDA and the FDA. GMOs are only evaluated by the FDA on a voluntary consultation process, which, to be fair, many crop growers elect not to waive to raise confidence in their product. Before 2010, every GMO was regulated by the FDA, but in the last five years the USDA has stepped in to monitor GMOs that break new ground under the risk of being plant pests. Neither system, however, applies to CRISPR crops. Federal agencies have not decided how exactly gene-edited produce will be regulated, and so right now, they pass through untouched.
"I'm not suggesting that they all need to be overseen or that they all need the same oversight," Jaffe says. "But the current system isn't set up to regulate anything fairly." As consumers, the answer isn't to vilify all genetically edited foods, but to push for independent, science-based evaluations. "Oversight is to find the one in 1,000, or one in 10,000, that might have a food safety risk," Jaffe says. "We regulate to to catch the exceptions, to find the needle in the haystack. If a gene edited crop isn't regulated, the question will be whether the public or even other members of the food industry even know that a genetically edited crop is in the marketplace."
Last year, Congress passed a law requiring labeling on GMOs to disclose that they were modified, lauded as a win for everyday consumers. No such law exists for gene-edited crops; they're too new. Already anticipating backlash, DuPont Pioneer, a company developing a CRISPR-edited waxy corn, has already launched a PR campaign to help consumers understand what genetically engineered foods are long before its product will be available on the market. They need to win in the court of public opinion before they can win on the shelves.
CRISPR is the food industry's first real chance at a do-over from the GMO fallout. Gene-edited crops aren't on shelves yet, though soybeans, potatoes, and corn could be ready to go to market soon, possibly by the end of 2018, so the industry still has time to get this right. In the next five years, we could see massive scientific leaps in helping crops become more drought resistant, more nutritious, and have longer shelf lives. All things worth celebrating, but only if we can see enough of what's happening to know to clap.