Today’s release of an open source test for detecting the first “gene edited” crop is a game changer.

It refutes claims by GMO developers suggesting that new GM foods are “indistinguishable” from similar non-GM crops, and so cannot be regulated.

Published today in the scientific journal Foods, the test has been delivered by an international consortium of leading non-GM food certifiers, NGOs, and a European supermarket chain, coordinated by the Sustainability Council.

The new genetic modification techniques known as gene editing are promoted as something different, but they are still GM and the test shows that the first gene edited crop in the field will not fly under the radar.

This test identifies a gene-edited rapeseed made by US company Cibus and has been independently verified as meeting European regulatory criteria for such testing. It can identify the smallest genetic change and is able to readily distinguish the Cibus product from similar non-GM varieties.

The ability to develop a precise detection test starting from just a bag of seed sends a very clear message: detection of gene edited GMOs is well within reach. The method announced today provides a basis for developing detection methods for all gene-edited crops.

Successful development of the test is a commercial game changer as well as a technological breakthrough. Farmers and food companies will now need to make commercial decisions on the assumption that gene edited crops will be detected and visible to consumers.

The test also has implications for GMO developers as proposals for making new gene edited varieties will need to disclose this development to potential funders.

Market sensitivity to GMOs is clearly demonstrated by the rapidly rising volumes of food products being certified as Non-GM. In North America, US$26 billion in products are certified by the Non-GMO Project, while the German Retailer Association for Non-GM food products certified 9 billion euros of products last year. Both have said they will require the new test to be used for product certification.

For leading New Zealand exporters selling to markets that reject GMOs, and those companies going the extra mile to gain “non-GM” certification, the test is a valuable tool. Fonterra, Zespri and Atkins Ranch are among those that have certified products as Non-GM.

It also demonstrates the strategic value to New Zealand Inc of having gene editing regulated under the country’s GMO law. This ensures gene edited crops can only be grown if approved following a public process and can be shown to deliver a net benefit for New Zealand.

New Zealand has always been a standards-taker when it comes to GM foods and for more than two decades, consumers around the world have strongly resisted GMOs in their food. The standards set by high-value markets, and by the regulators in those countries, are what New Zealand exporters ultimately seek alignment with..

There are just two gene edited crops in production at present – the Cibus rapeseed and a soybean by Calyxt. The Cibus rapeseed is being grown on a modest scale in North America, and the Calyxt product so far just in the US.

For further background, including statements from other project consortium members, go to


  1. The new method was published in the scientific journal Foods after peer reviewSee:  A Real-Time Quantitative PCR Method Specific for Detection and Quantification of the First Commercialized Genome-Edited Plant. Pradheep Chhalliyil C , Ilves H, Kazakov  S A, Howard S J, Johnston B H  and J Fagan.
  2. The test was formally validated by the GMO Laboratory of Environment Agency Austria a member of the European Network of GMO Laboratories, confirming that it meets European Union regulatory standards for the detection of GMOs. As it uses equipment and procedures common in GMO testing laboratories around the world, it can be easily incorporated into existing work flows.
  3. The research was led by Dr John Fagan at the Health Research Institute (Iowa, USA). The project was coordinated by the Sustainability Council of New Zealand and funded by Non-GM food retail associations VLOG (Germany), ARGE Gentechnik-frei (Austria) and the Non-GMO Project (USA); Austria’s largest food retailer SPAR; the Organic and Natural Health Association (USA); Greenpeace; the Sustainability Council; and organic food and farming association IFOAM Organics Europe.
  4. The Cibus rapeseed (SU Canola) was engineered to withstand certain herbicides using a gene editing technique called oligonucleotide mutagenesis (ODM)
  5. Cibus filed a detection method for the ODM rapeseed in order to obtain approval to put the rapeseed varieties on the market in Canada. However, the Canadian regulator declined to make the test publicly available on commercial sensitivity grounds. For this reason, the independently developed test has been made open source, so that farmers, food companies, non-GM certifiers and regulators can use it to deliver transparency.
  6. A 2013 Environmental Protection Authority decision that would have removed gene editing from coverage under New Zealand’s GMO law was struck down by the High Court following a challenge by the Sustainability Council.