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Silhouette of a tractor in a crop field. Against its background is a sunset, and blue skies with clouds

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the green light to a version of the plant Camelina sativa, an important oilseed crop that had been genetically engineered using CRISPR to produce enhanced omega-3 oil. What was interesting about this approval was that the USDA did not ask that the inventors of the plant endure the usual regulatory hoops required to sell biotech crops. The next month, a drought-tolerant soybean variety developed with CRISPR also got a quick pass from the USDA.

That’s because while those crops were certainly gene-edited, they were not genetically “modified,” according to USDA regulations. While scientists used CRISPR to snip and tweak the plant’s DNA, they did not add any foreign DNA to it. This, the USDA has now repeatedly found, means those CRISPR-edited plants fall outside of regulatory purview.

An interview in Nature with the CEO of Yield10 Bioscience, which developed the camelina, gives new insight into how that regulatory technicality is already making it significantly faster and cheaper to bring new biotech plants to market—shaving years and tens of millions of dollars...