By Eric Bohl
In recent years, Missouri has become the worldwide epicenter of biotechnology and animal sciences research. No other place on earth has as dense a concentration of scientific talent and entrepreneurial companies of this type as our state.
But until recently, the industry has been fighting for scientific advancement with one hand tied behind its back. Government oversight of biotechnology research has long been stuck in an outdated framework. The rules, last updated in 1987, are out of step with modern technology. This has handicapped innovators as they struggle to get new processes and genetic traits approved for public use.
The Trump administration made two recent announcements to bring oversight in line with current science. In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized a rule to streamline its oversight of biotech plant research. In early September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a similar proposal to modernize oversight of pest-resistant plants.
These two rules are the end result of many years of study. The Obama administration began the process before turning it over to the Trump administration. Both teams worked to ensure public safety was protected while allowing the benefits of the technology to move forward.
Under the new rules, biotech crops that do not insert genetic material from other species are exempt from USDA regulation. Crops that are genetically resistant to pests would be exempt from EPA regulation if they could have been produced through conventional breeding and pose no greater risk than other crops that meet EPA’s safety standards.
The new approach accounts for the breakthrough technology known as gene editing. Using this process, scientists can precisely edit the genome of a plant or animal. These tiny edits can have important impacts. Scientists have already demonstrated the ability to make both plants and animals resistant to disease. They can also make plants more drought-resistant or allow animals to use fewer antibiotics. These advances are good news for our planet and for farmers.
Unfortunately, so far, the government has only modernized the rules relating to plant science. Farming advocates have pushed for USDA to oversee animal gene editing regulation. Its current regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, has proven ineffective.
FDA’s overly strict regulatory regime has effectively blocked new animal traits from public adoption. The agency has stubbornly held to its system, despite gene editing’s strong safety record.
The progress on plant regulation is a huge step in the right direction. We need to keep moving forward to provide a modern, safe framework for evaluating both plant and animal genetic advancements.
As Missourians, we are proud to see so many of these breakthroughs happening right here in our own state. Washington is beginning to take notice as well. By continuing the drive toward modernization, we can help agriculture arrive at a healthier, more prosperous future.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Eric Bohl, of Columbia, Missouri, is Director of Public Affairs and Advocacy for Missouri Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm organization.