Essential to the Future

New traits developed with biotech require timely, scientific-based regulatory evaluations.

Published online: Feb 12, 2020 Articles
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This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Potato Grower.

Biotechnology has proven to be an important tool for growers. The new and improved traits it has brought forward have helped increase productivity while protecting the environment.

“For example, consider the biotech products, like Bt corn, that protect yield,” says Scott Huber, Syngenta regulatory head of seeds and traits. “The uptake is greater than 85 percent in many crops—meaning farmers see them as hugely beneficial to maintaining a profitable business—and protecting yield means better utilization of resources. That’s good for the environment, and it’s good for a steady food supply.”

The positive environmental impact of biotech is “a story that hasn’t been told well enough,” says Fan-Li Chou, biotechnology coordinator at the USDA’s Office of Pest Management Policy. “Studies show farmers who incorporate insect-resistant trait crops into their operations decrease the amount of insecticide they’re using. I remember at a USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum, a farmer from Maryland said it’s been really important for him to be able to grow genetically engineered crops to meet the Chesapeake Bay protection goals the EPA had put in place to decrease the impact on the Chesapeake Bay.”

The American Soybean Association (ASA) represents farmers across the U.S. who rely on biotech traits to grow their crops, says Renee Munasifi, ASA regulatory affairs manager. “Things change all the time, and our farmers need those tools to be able to address pests, disease, herbicide resistance—all the things coming at them daily,” says Munasifi. “Our farmers need new technologies like biotech to continue to meet global demand and grow soybeans more sustainably.”

Growers also rely on the USDA to evaluate new biotech crops before they come to market, Munasifi says. “But it’s important for regulation to be founded in science and based on real-world risks—and to be done in a timely manner.”

The process should also be as predictable as possible, and that’s a goal at the USDA, Chou says. “We’ve implemented a lot of business process improvements in the last 25 years to improve our timeliness. It’s really important because our farmers need access to these tools.”

Genome Editing: Biotech’s Latest Tool

Biotech products have already provided huge benefits to agriculture, and the coming genome-edited products will provide those same kind of benefits, Huber says.

The difference is that while many biotech products have some added DNA, gene editing usually adds no foreign DNA to the plants.

“We can potentially just make certain changes to those plants—maybe to increase yield or nitrogen efficiency or drought tolerance,” Huber says. “The products are very similar to what you get with conventional breeding, which could be labeled as organic.”

Genome editing is just a more precise, targeted means to get to a particular end result, Munasifi says. “And we need that more precise, more efficient method of improving varieties so that agriculture and farmers can adapt to challenges.”

That targeting ability means plant breeders can use this tool to facilitate other resistance—not just resistance to insect pests, but also to pathogens and bacteria.

“Those are much harder to get at from a conventional plant breeding perspective,” says Chou. “Pathogens and bacteria evolve very quickly with resistance. Genome editing, because of its ability to quickly get at a target, will help growers better manage these disease resistance issues.”

For now, this tool is still on the horizon.

“No genome-edited ag product is widely available commercially at the moment, but something coming to market over the next two to five years is very likely,” says Huber.

When it comes to oversight of those new products, the USDA, FDA and EPA will have shared responsibility, depending on the intended end use of the product.

In March 2018, U.S. secretary of agriculture Sonny Perdue put out a statement clarifying the USDA’s intentions with genome-edited products. In the statement, the USDA released guidance suggesting that if the modification to a product’s genome would have been possible through traditional, conventional breeding, but was instead achieved via genome editing, the USDA does not intend to regulate that product under its biotechnology regulations. Ag industry experts expect the FDA and EPA to clarify their positions and approval processes as they move forward.

What We Can Do

“We [at Syngenta] advocate with local governments for science-based, predictable regulatory systems,” Huber says. “At the same time, we have internal processes to make sure our products are safe at very early stages. We’re confident in the safety of our products by the time we take them to regulatory agencies.”

Huber hopes growers and retailers will learn what they can about biotech tools, get confident about their benefits, and then advocate for them.

Munasifi recommends reaching out to government agencies and making them aware of how beneficial these tools are.

“Talk with USDA, FDA and EPA and let them know it’s important that the U.S. government is coordinated and consistent on its approach to gene editing,” she says. “We need the U.S. to continue to coordinate its message internationally, too, so we can bring along other like-minded countries and embrace the technological advances in agriculture.”

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Syngenta’s Thrive publication.