Opinion: FDA overreach on gene-editing threatens US agriculture’s global technology lead
Written by David Herring
For more than a century, advances in science and technology have made the U.S. food supply the safest, most abundant and most affordable in the world. Our farmers have led the way in applying new developments in sanitation, robotics, GPS and scientific livestock breeding.
But for the first time in our history, U.S. farmers are now at risk of falling behind Argentina, Brazil, Canada and other global competitors in the use of a vital new technology: gene editing. While the U.S. is making great strides in this effort, regulatory overreach by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hampering progress.
Gene editing is used to make specific changes within an animal’s own genome. Unlike genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, there would be no incorporation of genes from other species). Gene editing will allow us to produce animals that are more resistant to disease, require less antibiotics, and have a better environmental footprint. It will also potentially allow us to produce animal products that are safer or do not contain allergens.
But a squabble over whether the FDA or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should regulate genetic editing in livestock is delaying adoption of the technology.
Gene editing in livestock and poultry should be under the USDA’s jurisdiction. As the regulatory body in charge of U.S. agriculture since 1862, the cabinet-level department is the only organization with the understanding and history of working directly with livestock and agriculture. The FDA, by contrast, is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees packaged food, drugs, and medical devices. Nevertheless, it is claiming the right to regulate gene-edited farm animals and their offspring as drugs under a decades-old administrative decision designed with laboratory animals in mind.
Gene editing has the potential to lead us into a new era of livestock production that addresses many of society’s concerns. That only happens, though, if we stay ahead of the curve – or at least keep pace with it. And sadly, we’re currently falling behind and losing our long-held leadership role in agricultural innovation.
Around the world, countries are experimenting, implementing, and – importantly – properly regulating gene editing in livestock. China has been doing it since 2016. Brazil, Canada, and Argentina are advancing the technology, and U.S. agricultural scientists, already stymied by the FDA’s intervention, are moving their experimentation to those countries.
The USDA already applies a review process for genetic editing in plants, which can be easily adopted for livestock. And under USDA, gene-editing for livestock will be well protected under the existing Animal Health Protection Act.
If the FDA emerges victorious in its regulatory overreach, the impact on America’s farms and farmers could be catastrophic. FDA regulation of livestock will hinder the advancement of gene editing technologies. As other countries gain more of a lead, the livestock industry that was once the pride of our heartland will become more illness-prone and less desirable.
American farmers will lose the ability to compete, as their counterparts abroad gain a tremendous competitive advantage. They will be able to operate with significantly higher profit margins and less financial risk. Their animals will be stronger, healthier, and safer. And it won’t be long before more frustrated U.S. companies seek other countries where the red tape and regulatory burdens are lighter.
Breeding healthier livestock with genetic editing will result in a better food supply, a healthier United States population, and less food-borne illness. The United States pioneered these technologies, and thus far they’ve given us a significant competitive advantage.
It would be foolish to cede this advantage.
With an industry that generates more than a trillion dollars every year, creates more than 550,000 jobs, and represents almost six percent of the country’s GDP, we cannot afford to take this risk. Our lead in agriculture will only be maintained by driving these vital technologies forward – not putting the FDA in a position to slow them down.
David Herring is the president of the National Pork Producers Council and a pork producer from Lillington, North Carolina.