CAST: Excessive Barriers Stifle Biotech Progress

GE technology can improve yields and crop quality while reducing pesticide use and soil erosion. ( Farm Journal )

Scientists continue to make advancements in biotechnology, while private and public entities invest in development of technologies to enhance agriculture and food production. Regulatory obstacles, however, keep most biotechnology advancements from reaching commercialization, resulting in sparse return on investment. That sums up the primary theme in a new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST).

The report, titled “Regulatory Barriers to the Development of Innovative Agricultural Biotechnology by Small Businesses and Universities,” notes that USDA and private businesses have developed dozens of genetically engineered (GE) crops with benefits including yields, disease resistance, nutritional enhancements, food safety and environmental sustainability. But while many have passed through extensive safety testing, few have reached commercial release or generated returns on investment.

In a scientifically rigorous, risk-based safety assessment, the authors note, the degree of regula­tory scrutiny is commensurate with the degree of identified risk posed by the product in question. “In reality, however, our current regulations are not based on product risk, but on spurious, undocu­mented risks posed by the process of genetic engineering.”

GE technology has been around since the 1970s, and GE organisms have come into common use in medicine, industry, usually with minor, if any, public objection. Applications for food and agriculture however, have met with considerable resistance from consumers, non-governmental organizations and governments.

The authors attribute some of this discrepancy to a knowledge gap separating the science from nonscience segments of society. They note, meanwhile, a clear consensus in the scientific and medical communities that GE crops and foods are safe. “In the nearly half a century since its inception, not a single case of harm attributed to a GE modifica­tion has been documented,” they write.

The report includes a detailed history of GE technology and its agricultural applications, and cites research outlining benefits including higher yields, reduced pesticide use, soil conservation, improved food safety and reductions in greenhouse gasses. The authors also warn that regulatory barriers could stifle development of new breeding techniques such as “ge­nome editing” technologies including Zinc finger, TALENs, and CRISPR-CAS9, which can mimic changes in the DNA identical to those resulting from historical, unregulated technologies such as induced muta­genesis that are considered to pose no unreasonable risk.

The CAST authors conclude that regulations need to align with the stated public policy goal of reasonably assuring safety and regulating commensurate with the degree of risk. Until then, “public, academic, and small business entities will continue to be frustrated in using these safe tools to deliver useful products to farmers and consumers, and the 35-year history of public and small private invest­ment in agricultural biotechnology will continue to be squandered.”

Read the full report here.