The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why this genetically modified mushroom gets to skip USDA oversight

The white-button mushroom just got an upgrade. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

For the first time, a food product created using CRISPR – a promising but controversial gene-editing technique – could be on track to be sold and eaten. And it might be the first of many.

Few scientific issues are more divisive than the regulation and labeling of genetically modified organisms, otherwise known as GMOs. In 2015, a Pew Research survey found that more than half of American adults consider GMOs "generally unsafe." In contrast, 88 percent of scientists surveyed think GMOs are "generally safe." That kind of staggering schism between scientific consensus and public opinion -- mixed in with a deep mistrust of Monsanto, the company most publicly associated with the push to grow GMO food crops -- makes it seem at times impossible to have a level conversation about the real risks and rewards of the technology.

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A new fungus shows just how murky our understanding of the technology – and our policy surrounding it – remains. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed that it will not regulate the cultivation and sale of a white-button mushroom created using CRISPR.

The decision came in the form of a letter to Yinong Yang, a plant pathologist at Pennsylvania State University who created the new mushroom. Yang's frankenfungi is a simple Agaricus bisporus, the kind of white-button mushroom you could buy at any grocery store. But Yang targeted several genes that code for the protein that causes mushrooms to turn brown as they age or get bruised. The result is a mushroom more resilient to automated harvesting and long storage periods. Much of the $165 billion in food waste in the United States each year is the result of cosmetic "defects" such as excessive browning, so more attractive mushrooms would be good news for everyone.

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If you support the labeling of GMOs, the USDA's decision to wave this shroom in without a second thought might strike you as scary. But it comes down to a question that we all have to ask: When we talk about regulating GMOs, what are we even talking about?

In this case, no foreign organism's genetic material was introduced into the food, and that makes all the difference. If Yang had tackled mushroom browning by adding bits of genetic code from another organism, it would have been subject to USDA scrutiny as other non-browning produce has been. Until recently, genetic modification required the insertion of foreign viruses or bacteria, but CRISPR is more advanced than that. Because of that loophole, it's not under the USDA's jurisdiction. The EPA only regulates GMOs designed for pest control, and the FDA considers all GMOs to be safe. That leaves this non-browning mushroom cleared for take-off.

Scientists are excited. Anti-GMO advocates are disturbed. The public will probably continue to be more confused than anything else.

MIT Technology Review reports that even the mushroom company that helped fund the research is wary of trying to sell it, given the public scrutiny of GMOs.

CRISPR is a revolutionary scientific tool, but it's moving fast. Whether or not GMOs hold hidden risks, it's time for U.S. governing agencies to step up and create new, scientifically sound guidelines for studying and regulating CRISPR-edited crops. The majority of the public considers these organisms dangerous. The scientific consensus simply doesn't support that fear, but the longer consumers are left feeling in the dark, the more that disconnect will widen.

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