With Katherine Tai confirmed unanimously by the Senate as the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in place at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the world is now getting a better picture of what U.S. agricultural policy – and the role of biotechnology in it – will look like at home and abroad.
Here is a look at how the Biden administration’s agriculture policy agenda will impact the biotechnology sector and members of BIO.
Advancing innovation in U.S. domestic agricultural policy
At home, the USDA under Vilsack’s leadership is placing a premium on innovation. As Vilsack himself said during his confirmation hearing, USDA will not be able to accomplish its goals “without innovation. We won't be able to do it without precision agriculture. We won't be able to do it without a technology that converts agricultural waste into a variety of products.”
Reassuringly for the biotechnology sector, much of what Vilsack said – both during his confirmation process and in early statements since becoming Secretary of Agriculture – overlaps with BIO priorities. According to Sarah Gallo, BIO’s Acting Senior Advisor for Agriculture & Environment Policy, Vilsack is focused on, among other things, revitalizing rural areas coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and “looking to innovation specifically to bring jobs back to rural America.” In addition, Gallo emphasized how Vilsack and USDA are looking into how agricultural innovation thanks to biotechnology can be a solution to climate change and another economic engine for rural areas.
Embracing equity across food, agriculture, and rural America will be key to transforming food systems and domestic policies, according to Gallo. It is also of the utmost importance that there be greater effort given to building consumer acceptance around new technologies. One technology that requires greater regulatory efficiency is animal biotechnology, which would benefit from a “much clearer path to commercialization,” added Gallo. Since animal biotechnology is currently treated the same way as new animal drugs, this has encouraged companies to invest elsewhere and “export innovation.”
An international trade policy focused on U.S. workers, existing trade agreements, and China
USTR plays a central role in setting U.S. trade policy, including advocating for various sectors of the American economy such as the biotechnology and agricultural sectors. When asked by Good Day BIO what are the key challenges Tai will face on the job, BIO Executive Vice President for International Affairs Joe Damond summarized them in three parts:
- Implementing the Biden administration’s worker-focused trade policy;
- Keeping China honest while improving the tone of dialogue and;
- Focusing more on enforcing existing trade commitments rather than pursuing new agreements.
Tai should focus on “protecting and trying to advance sectors where the U.S. leads the world,” such as the biotechnology sector, noted Damond.
Many of the rising innovators in the biotechnology sector are small companies and it is because of their size that they need the assistance and the reach of the USTR to be their advocates for a level playing field on the world stage.
BIO Vice President for International Affairs Matt O’Mara added that there have been “few details revealed regarding promised systemic reform of agricultural biotechnology” as was committed by the Chinese in their Phase One trade agreement with the United States, which is why enforcement is key in the years ahead.
Enforcing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement will also likely be a priority for Tai as the Mexican government has "not issued a new biotechnology approval in nearly three years and has become the rate-limiting step to introducing new agricultural innovations in North America,” said O’Mara.
Policy solutions depend on domestic and international cooperation
“In today’s global marketplace, domestic biotechnology policy has to have an eye towards the international dialogue,” said Gallo—and USDA and USTR must speak “with one voice”.
Whether it is discussions on the world stage at the United Nations about food systems or determining how biotechnology can spur innovation at home, these two critical agencies must come together to produce successful policy outcomes for all Americans, which will in turn, benefit the world.