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Will CRISPR’s promise force the organic industry to reconsider its opposition to gene-edited crops?

Opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops advanced by organic activist groups (and official organizations like the US National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) or the EU’s European Court of Justice) is based on the claim that recombinant DNA technology introduces genes from one species into another. That’s not natural, these critics contend.

By this definition, though, gene-editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9 are natural: They’re part of the immune system in many species of bacteria. Scientists are now using these tools to make specific changes (or edits) to the DNA of food crops and animals to boost their nutritional content or protect them from disease, without adding “foreign” genes to their genomes.

Therefore, CRISPR-enhanced plants and animals could be utilized by organic growers and ranchers, right? So far, the answer is no—but some dissension in the ranks is starting to appear.

While the organic industry generally remains opposed to all forms of genetic engineering, the sustainability benefits of gene-editing techniques like CRISPR have convinced several high-profile organic farmers to come out in support of the technology.

Their opposition to the prevailing wisdom espoused by the NOSB suggests that organic agriculture could slowly begin to abandon its hard-line prohibition on biotechnology.

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