Biotech, gene editing will be key to addressing agriculture’s future challenges

In the coming decades, United States farmers and ranchers will be challenged to produce more output with fewer inputs, feeding a growing global population while dealing with weather and environmental risks.

For some, those challenges seem almost insurmountable, but others see that many of the tools are already within our reach and just need investment and regulatory clarity.

"Through opening trade, investing in research, and streamlining our regulatory system we can help facilitate the use of biotechnology to address threats like food scarcity and climate change," Rep. Jim Costa, D-CA, chairman of the Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture, said during a recent hearing. That subcommittee held the hearing together with the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research.

Members of the two subcommittees holding the hearing appeared to support the use of biotech, and gene editing in particular, to develop new plants and animals resistant to disease and able to help farming adapt to climate change.

Plant breeding is not new; rather it dates back thousands of years to when people first domesticated wild plant varieties, noted Fan-Li Chou, the American Seed Trade Association’s vice president for scientific affairs and policy in her written testimony.

“Over time, plant breeders have accumulated an impressive collection of tools, such as cross breeding, selection, hybridization, induced mutagenesis, biotechnology and molecular markers to unlock the genetic potential of plant crops. Using these breeding tools, the plant breeding community, both the public and private sides, have safely and reliably introduced to the food system hundreds of thousands of new plant varieties over the past century,” she added.

New varieties developed from plant breeding allow farmers to produce more using fewer inputs. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service report on Agricultural Productivity in the U.S., since 1948, domestic agriculture productivity nearly tripled.

While some of the gains can be attributed to better management practices, Chou said some experts estimate that improved varieties account for more than a 50% productivity gain.

To be commercially released, Chou said new plant varieties, regardless of the breeding tools used, are subjected to strict, multiyear, multi-location evaluation and assessment for quality and performance.

But sometimes, regulatory systems don’t match up well with the rapid pace of innovation.

One of the issues uniting the witnesses and many of the committee members is the current regulatory structure for making intentional genomic changes in animals. Like changes in plant breeding, the livestock industry has been making improvements in animals for decades.

For example, in pigs the feed conversion ratio—the amount of food needed to build bodyweight (pounds of feed/pounds of edible protein at slaughter)—has fallen 58% since 1970, resulting in over 1.5 times a pig’s body weight in feed being saved, noted Elena Rice, chief scientific officer at animal biotech firm Genus PLC in her written testimony.

“In the dairy industry, over a 40-year period, 13% fewer cows are producing 76% more milk—another massive improvement in the sustainability of protein production. While improved genetics is not responsible for all of this staggering improvement, genetics has been the major driver. Based on industry studies and our own analysis, we estimate 50 to 60% of the improvement has been driven by better genetics,” Rice said.

However, many argue that the process for reviewing gene editing improvements for animals is very outdated. The Food and Drug Administration reviews such changes as if they were drugs.

“Gene editing approaches are channeled into a regulatory approval process that is not well matched for how the technology alters the genome, is transmitted to subsequent generations, or the intended purposes,” said Jon Oatley, a professor at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

He said he supported a Memorandum of Understanding between the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services released last year that proposed USDA assume authority over genetically engineered animals used for food while FDA, which falls under HHS’ purview, would continue to regulate non-food uses.

But the MOU came at the tail end of the Trump administration, and USDA is now considering comments on the appropriate regulatory structure.

“There are ways in which we have to work collaboratively with our friends at FDA to make sure our regulatory system is able to respond quickly enough and be able to keep pace with the pace of change,” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Ag Committee.

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His comments followed a letter from almost two-thirds of the ag committee to Vilsack and acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock that said the “existing regulatory system is not conducive to the timely adoption” of genetic improvements in animals. “In the past 25 years, only two animals intended for agricultural purposes have been approved for use domestically by FDA.”

The letter was signed by—among others—House Ag Committee Chairman David Scott, D-GA, Ranking Member Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-PA, Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-VI, chair of the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, and Rep. Jim Baird, R-IN, the top Republican on that subcommittee.

Rice, from Genus PLC, said the focus of regulation should be on the end products, not on the technology used to produce them. In other words, if a product made using biotechnology could be created using conventional breeding, it should not be regulated differently.

The hearing featured questions from committee members on how biotechnology and gene editing can address issues such as food waste, nutritional deficits and animal diseases.

Oatley said research is now underway on how to transfer genes from warthogs, which can carry African swine fever but show no symptoms, into domestic pigs, which die quickly from ASF.

Jack Bobo, CEO of food consulting firm Futurity, said the U.S. needs to clarify its regulatory process for animal biotech products in order to not fall behind other countries where such products have been approved.

He and Chou both mentioned Japan, which has streamlined its biotech regulations and approved a new GE tomato that helps lower blood pressure.

Witnesses and members also decried Mexico’s stated intention to not import GE corn, as well as China’s foot-dragging on the approval of new biotech traits.

Chou said the U.S. has to enforce the biotech provisions in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and said China will not be able to achieve its strategic goals without use of technology, including gene editing.

Editor’s note: Sara Wyant can be reached at Associate Editor Steve Davies contributed to this column.