National Pork Producers Council President: Don’t Strangle Promising Technology With Red Tape
In a recent op-ed, National Pork Producers Council President Jim Heimerl highlighted the benefits of gene editing technology and the need to prevent federal regulations from holding back future innovations and U.S. competitiveness.
Innovations such as gene editing are helping us address many of the global challenges facing society today – climate change, a looming food crisis, malnourished populations, increased drought and disease and the availability of productive land, just to name a few. The continuous advancement in the understanding of genetics – including the development of new gene editing methods – provides new opportunities to meet these challenges in a safe and sustainable way.
Heimerl speaks to that point in his op-ed:
Gene editing has the potential to be game changing for livestock producers. Diseases that have plagued cattle ranchers, hog farmers and other livestock and poultry producers for decades, such as Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex and Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome – the most economically significant disease to affect U.S. swine production – suddenly would be gone. Millions of dollars would be saved, animal mortality would decrease and animal health would improve; antibiotic use would drop and production would increase – all to the benefit of consumers.
Under the current regulatory proposal being considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), gene edited animals and their offspring would essentially be treated as living animal drugs.
It’s an approach that would stifle a technology that most certainly will improve the health of animals and people and ensure the safety of our food supply.
Heimerl notes the dangers of such a regulatory approach:
Under the agency’s proposed plan for regulating gene editing in livestock there are only three possible outcomes: drastic loss of genetic diversity as producers move toward the few approved lines of animals; hundreds or thousands of applications on edits for each livestock breed, line or even herd or flock and the attendant costly and lengthy approval processes; or most U.S. producers forgoing the technology while their competitors around the world reap its benefits.
None is acceptable.
Alison Van Eenennaam – a geneticist and researcher at the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis – has also stressed why regulating gene edits as drugs would have negative impacts on consumers and food production.
There is nothing fundamentally hazardous about genetic variation in food, and suggesting intentional alterations are equivalent to drugs will frighten consumers who might logically infer the presence of drugs in their food.
How can the absence of something, a snippet of DNA – as in the case of a deletion – be considered “a drug residue,” when an analogous deletion in the genome of a mushroom is not?
In the absence of sensible regulation of the breathtaking genetic variation that exists naturally in our food species - which is generally regarded as safe - innovation will emigrate. If intentional DNA alterations are shoehorned into a century-old regulatory framework, research exploring the introduction of sustainability traits like disease resistance, climate adaptability and animal welfare into U.S. livestock breeding programs will be thwarted, harming American agriculture and food production.
In addition, the current U.S. regulatory system is putting our country at a disadvantage. U.S. researchers are global leaders in the charge to create these new innovations that not only address our world’s crises but also foster investment, create jobs, and generate growth in communities. However, other countries – such as Canada and Brazil – are becoming further advanced in their policy environments than the United States, putting our nation’s food developers and producers at a significant disadvantage globally.
Some scientists, developers, and producers are already moving their work to other countries, like Brazil, where the regulatory process is more certain. As reported by the scientific journal Nature:
In a few weeks, reproductive biologist Charles Long will travel from Texas to São Paulo, Brazil in search of collaborators willing to take on his studies of gene-edited cattle. He is reluctant to ship the project away from his laboratory at Texas A&M University in College Station. But after 20 years of struggling to win US government funding for his research, Long says that he is done.
“We’ve essentially given up,” he says. “I’m going to move the entire damn project down there.”
Recombinetics, an animal biotechnology company in St. Paul, Minnesota, has also decided to look beyond the United States. The company’s gene-edited dairy cattle do not have horns, which could be a boon to both animal welfare and dairy farmers, who surgically remove the horns from conventional cattle to prevent the animals from hurting each other or their handlers.
In 2016, Recombinetics petitioned the FDA to declare its gene-edited cattle “generally recognized as safe”, a designation that would have largely freed the animals from regulatory oversight. Hornless cattle also occur naturally, the company argued, noting that it used genome editing to turn off only one gene.
The FDA declined the petition, but the company has since gotten a green light from Brazilian regulators. It is focusing on Brazil and other markets including Argentina, Australia and Canada to market both its hornless cattle and its genome-edited, heat-resistant cattle. “We don’t really need the United States,” says Recombinetics chief scientific officer Mitch Abrahamsen. “It’s just a reality.”
Together, the agriculture and biotechnology industries are working to discover and unlock the remarkable advancements and developments that gene editing can provide for human health and environmental well-being. However, none of that can be achieved if regulations become overly burdensome and crush the potential of this technology.