Despite ominous warnings from the scientific establishment that President Trump is anti-science, there is one area in which he might be more pro-science than President Obama: agriculture. Free from the constraints of hard-line, Obama-era environmentalists who opposed innovations such as genetically engineered crops, the Trump administration can energize the federal government’s sclerotic approach to green-lighting new agricultural biotechnologies. Many groundbreaking products could reduce food waste, protect animal welfare, and improve our overall food system in the future.
In its final days, the Obama administration issued some new rules to hamper progress on genetically engineered food and animals. The Food and Drug Administration published a draft report claiming that animal breeds developed with gene-editing tools will be considered an animal drug and subjected to a different set of federal regulations. The rule draws a distinction between “animals whose genomes have been altered intentionally” using modern molecular techniques and animals bred the old-fashioned way that farmers and ranchers have been using for centuries.
According to Alison Van Eenennaam, a leading animal geneticist at the University of California, Davis, the proposed rule is “nonsensical.” Van Eenennaam and her colleagues used genome editing to develop a specialty breed of dairy cattle that does not grow horns. Her method involves replacing the allele (one of a pair of genes) that causes Holsteins to grow horns with the allele from Angus cattle that stops horns from growing. Not having horns would spare the animals from enduring a painful de-horning procedure common on dairy farms. Van Eenennaam says that the FDA’s proposed rule would require the hornless Holsteins to be evaluated as a new animal drug, but not hornless Angus cattle carrying exactly the same allele: “This does not make any sense because the risk lies in the novel characteristics, if any, irrespective of the breeding method,” Van Eenennaam told me. Subjecting specific animal DNA alterations to a new regulatory evaluation based on whether they were ‘intended’ or not will preclude the public sector and small companies from using gene editing in livestock genetic-improvement programs.” She is encouraging scientists and advocates to weigh in on the new rule during the public-comment period, open until April 19.
Hastening the approval process for genetically engineered foods — commonly known as GMOs — would unleash great potential for our food supply. Until recently, most genetically engineered products have been limited to commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, and cotton, helping farmers reduce pesticide use and boost yields to record levels over the past few years. But genetically modified produce and fish were met with heavy resistance at federal agencies and by anti-GMO activists who were influential in the Obama administration.
Last month, some stores in the Midwest began selling Arctic apples, a new variety that does not bruise or brown. Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the company that created the apples, finally overcame years of regulatory red tape at the FDA and Department of Agriculture as well as fierce opposition from anti-GMO groups. A new breed of salmon that grows faster than regular salmon in contained tanks could soon be available to American consumers after a nearly 20-year approval process. The FDA and Environmental Protection Agency just approved three new varieties of potato that have been genetically modified to fight the pathogen that causes late blight, the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine. (Obama holdovers at the EPA are oddly requiring a label on the potato that warns, “Keep out of reach of children.”)
Just think how applying this technology to other foods could cut down on food waste throughout the supply chain and lower food bills for American families. (Okanagan is also researching bruise-free cherries, pears, and peaches. I am putting a word in for avocados, please.) Consumers and environmentalists concerned about the use of farm chemicals would see them reduced over time as crops are grown that use their own genes to fight off pests and diseases.
A Republican administration and Congress that embrace, rather than resist, this new food frontier will increase the public’s acceptance at a time when many consumers are leery of GMO products. Last year, President Obama signed an ill-advised mandatory GMO-labeling bill pushed by the organic industry and environmental groups to further stigmatize GMO ingredients and goods. Congress and the USDA might want to take another look at that bad law. Fortunately, Sonny Perdue, former Georgia governor and Trump’s pick for secretary of agriculture, seems amenable to biotechnology. In 2009, the Biotechnology Industry Organization gave Perdue its Governor of the Year award.
There will be plenty of chances for Republicans to advance these technologies; on March 9, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine will release a new report describing the biotech products likely to emerge over the next five to ten years and what kind of regulatory support will be needed. While Trump has said little about GMOs, he did lament the “slow and burdensome approval process” at the FDA for life-saving drugs, a concern that could extend to biotech regulations. “Human ingenuity, innovation, and entrepreneurship are the catalysts that bring about positive change in every area of our lives including food and agriculture,” wrote Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, in his latest book, Unnaturally Delicious, which praises new scientific advancements in food and agriculture. Seizing the pro-science mantle from the Democrats isn’t just good politics, it’s also what’s best for our future food system.