By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
DES MOINES (DTN) -- Agribusinesses, trade groups and farmers are excited about the prospects of gene-editing technology, but a great deal of unknowns remain about regulations and consumer acceptance.
Gene editing drew a lot of attention this week at the BIO World Congress in Des Moines, Iowa, as experts highlighted the possibilities of addressing a range of crop and livestock challenges. At the same time, caution was urged over the introduction of the technology to avoid some of the same pitfalls and debates that arose over genetic modification.
Companies such as Corteva Agriscience are already beginning to engage the public differently than they did 20 years ago, said Neal Gutterson, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Corteva, "because we started to think about the need to get this technology accepted and adopted before we got too close to the actual process of launching products."
Gutterson highlighted a range of possibilities for gene editing that range from improving disease resistance for a host of crops to slowing browning or rot in fruits and vegetables. For consumers, heart-healthy oilseeds and vegetables, low-gluten wheat and naturally decaffeinated coffee were some of the areas Gutterson highlighted.
Right now, most people are getting introduced to the topic of gene editing through articles about gene-edited babies in China. It's largely understood that the general public knows very little about gene editing, said David Fikes, vice president of communication and consumer affairs at the Food Marketing Institute. Fikes thinks it will be important that early gene-edited food products provide a clear benefit to consumers.
"It sure helps, as my grandma would say, to 'grease the skids,'" Fikes said. "It makes it easier for consumers to accept it if they recognize the products."
Nutritional and health benefits are going to be easier to explain to a larger group of consumers than crop products oriented toward reducing water usage or pesticides, even though those agronomic benefits also help society, Fikes said.
So far, the first gene-edited food product on the market came earlier this year from Minneapolis-based Calyxt Inc., which released a high oleic soybean oil and meal from gene-edited soybeans. (https://calyxt.com/…)
Still, there isn't much information about what consumers believe about gene editing. But FMI is currently working on a survey that will ask what consumers know about gene editing, their perceptions of it, and what benefits would resonate most with consumers.
"We have got to be careful because I'm not sure the consumer is going to be able to parse between gene editing and GMO without a lot of help," Fikes said. "I know I couldn't. It took me a while."
To try to reach consumers, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and American Seed Trade Association have created a website, "innovature," (https://innovature.com/…) to highlight gene-editing science to consumers.
Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who received an award at the BIO conference for championing biotechnology and a bio-based economy in rural America, said the regulatory process has stalled the technology process. Vilsack noted, when he first got to USDA, it took the department seven-plus years to approve a biotechnology trait, largely because no one wanted to be held accountable for making a decision.
"The regulatory system needs to have a philosophical change and shift," Vilsack said in a speech. "We need to free up those who work in government to understand it's OK to make a mistake if we learn from it. But the biggest mistake is not acting at all, or not acting quick enough to fuel the innovation you are working on to get into the marketplace quick enough to make a difference."
Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order telling regulatory agencies such as USDA and the Food and Drug Administration they should work on better regulating biotechnology traits and approve products in a timely manner. That order has already led to calls by the National Pork Producers Council for USDA to be involved in regulating gene-edited animals and FDA to overhaul a regulatory system that would treat gene-edited animals like a pharmaceutical product.
"We're looking for a workable process that leads to approval and commercialization, and to the extent we don't have, we want USDA to have a seat at that table so it's not just FDA," said Barb Glenn, CEO for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. "We're talking about inclusivity of USDA and maybe EPA."
FDA has maintained it has regulatory authority over animals and can evolve with the science. That comes after it took a decade for FDA to approve genetically modified salmon for the market.
Glenn said she thinks the risk of African swine fever could bolster the need to accelerate the federal regulatory process. China, over the past year, has seen ASF cull its breeding sows nearly 25% with Rabobank stating as much as 70% of China's hog herd could be lost. U.S. pork producers are worried about the disease landing in the U.S. A vaccine for ASF has proven hard to create, but scientists have already shown they could knock out the gene that affects swine.
Regulation is also important for international trade. The commodity business accumulates quantities, captures economies of scale and delivers to a destination as cheap as possible. Standardization versus differentiation is what drives the grain trade, especially with exports, said Jim Stitzlein, chairman of the U.S. Grains Council Technology. Providers largely have done a good job getting regulatory approval globally, but hiccups can quickly affect the supply chain, he said. Gene editing raises some concerns at the moment because most countries have yet to devise regulatory schemes.
"Our commodity-based system depends on standardization, flexibility and responsiveness to price and market signals," Stitzlein said. "So that regulatory approval is a very important element and defining how new breeding techniques are going to be treated is a real concern for us."
He added, "That's a problem if we don't have uniformity or asynchronous approvals around the world. Then we run the risk we won't be able to deliver that grain to foreign destinations because we don't meet their rules."
Gutterson said the regulatory landscape has improved over the past two years with the Americas advancing rules. Several other Asian and African companies are developing their rules. Europe is a disappointment with its court ruling last year to treat gene-edited crops the same as genetically modified crops.
However, 14 of 27 counties in the European Union have signed onto a letter saying they want to see gene-edited crops treated like conventional crops. Gutterson said legislation in Europe on regulatory reform is three to five years down the road.
"I think there really is a path here to see this technology in the 2020s really have an impact on the food supply," Gutterson said.
Corteva is working on a specialty starch corn product and is using that as a foray to talk to regulators globally that would import such starch. Gutterson said that has allowed the company to talk about the technology and form a regulatory roadmap on how Corteva would move ahead on commercializing products.
"If you don't have a product you are developing, you really don't have standing to have a conversation with regulators around the world," Gutterson said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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