An Obama food-science policy worth keeping
Cornfields just south of Belle Plaine, Minn.
President Donald Trump spent a great deal of his early days in the White House rolling back decisions made by his predecessor. That is the usual political stuff; President Barack Obama also did it to President George W. Bush. But there is one science policy initiative Trump has not touched so far — and shouldn’t.
That beneficial policy relates to modernizing how genetic alteration of organisms is approved.
Currently, multiple agencies need to sign off on products that can prevent diseases or kill pests. The Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, passed in 1986 and slightly modified in 1992, mandates approval for anything that can be deemed a new food technology to three government bureaucracies: the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The EPA regulates anything to do with pesticides, while the USDA governs plant health and the FDA has control over food safety.
Yet those legacy regulations paint science with too broad a brush in 2017. By now, popular crops have long been altered with the use of agrobacterium, "nature’s genetic engineer," which was discovered by USDA plant pathologists Erwin Smith and Charles Townsend 110 years ago.
Their work led to discoveries about gene transfer that have held off crop diseases and devastating economic loss in cotton. Building on their work, scientists have learned how to naturally prevent other plant diseases as well. They eventually learned how to take the gene from the organic-certified, pest-killing bacillus thuringiensis bacterium and put it in corn to eliminate insects — a process done without the bacteria middleman.
Agrobacterium is now the basis for how diseases are prevented in many plants naturally. It may be the most thoroughly understood organism in agriculture by now, yet our approval regulations remain trapped in the past, when agrobacterium was still new to us.
President Trump was not the first to notice that many federal science regulations had become bottlenecks — the AquAdvantage salmon, an Atlantic fish that simply has a gene from a Chinook salmon that allows it to grow faster, was held up in regulatory limbo from 1996 until late 2015. There was never a substantial science, health or ecological concern; the government simply didn’t know how to regulate it under old rules. To try to streamline approval for the 21st century, the FDA has produced new guidance on genetic editing of "animals," which will include mosquitoes — a few species of which are ecologically useless disease vectors for yellow fever and Zika and can be controlled with biology better than chemicals — and the invasive diamondback moth, which eats crops such as cabbage and broccoli. Transgenic solutions for those are in the works. Meanwhile, USDA proposed new rules for biotech plants, which would mandate approval based on risk to the environment and human health — not just because they have been genetically modified.
That’s a big change. It would mean we would upgrade our approval process for genetically engineered crops to one similar to food additives, which provides a pass for ingredients designated "generally recognized as safe." Public comments are currently set to close June 19 for the USDA guidance, and indications are they will be approved.
Though these new recommendations were produced during the Obama era, they would be a good foundation in biotech for President Trump’s mandate to make policy decision-making more evidence-based.
Hank Campbell is the president of the American Council on Science and Health in New York.