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Genetic engineering is the future of agriculture, scientists tell lawmakers

The United States must modernize its regulation of agricultural biotechnology, especially in livestock, to reap the benefits of gene editing and to lead the world in breakthroughs of food production, said a panel of scientists on Tuesday. Joined by some farm-state lawmakers, panelists said the FDA and USDA should share duties in regulation of GE plants and animals.

While dozens of biotech crops are on the market after USDA review, the FDA has approved only two GE animals – far more complex organisms – for human consumption: a salmon in 2015 and a pig in 2020. The pig was approved for biomedical use as well.

“The United States has been providing leading edge innovation in animal agriculture for nearly 100 years and the next frontier in devising strategies to effectively feed a growing global human population will be defined by gene editing technologies,” said professor Jon Oatley of Washington State University, who uses gene editing in hog research. “A coordinated assessment and approval process between the USDA and FDA will be essential in establishing a framework that is stream-lined, cost-effective, and ensures safe food, with the decision-making process anchored on logic and science-based fact.”

Just before leaving office, the Trump administration pushed through an interdepartmental memorandum allowing the USDA to regulate food-bearing GE livestock while the FDA would remain in charge of other types of GE animals. Some lawmakers at the House Agriculture subcommittee hearing said the memorandum of understanding should be the foundation for federal regulation of GE livestock. Farm groups expect the USDA would be quicker to act on requests for approval.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Oct. 7 that there were questions about the validity of the memorandum, signed by the HHS assistant secretary who headed the Public Health Service and by Sonny Perdue, agriculture secretary for Trump. The FDA objected to the change in jurisdiction.

Fan-Li Chou of the American Seed Trade Association said improved crop varieties may be responsible for 50% of the increase in agricultural productivity since 1948. “The need for improved varieties is greater than ever,” she said, pointing to climate change, global population growth and loss of biodiversity. “In agriculture, gene editing is an enabling tool, supporting rather than supplanting, the fundamentals of plant breeding.” Gene editing is being used to develop plants that are thriftier users of water, support carbon capture, and are healthier to eat, said Chou.

Chou spoke in support of a 2020 USDA biotechnology rule that exempted most gene-edited plants from regulatory review. Other panelists said gene editing was different than classical genetic modification and deserved less rigorous regulatory treatment.

Biotech executive Jack Bobo said U.S. pre-eminence in biotechnology was not assured. Two gene-edited products, a tomato with healthier nutrients and a meatier fish, are on the market in Japan, traditionally cautious about agricultural biotechnology. Singapore and Israel have given the green light to cell-culture meat “despite the long head start by U.S. technology companies.”

A video of the hearing is available here.

For the written testimony of the witnesses, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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