Inside D.C.

Technology must be protected

Commentary.

Any way you cut it, biotechnology is very likely the key to avoiding our looming global food crisis.  If, as the experts predict, we’re going to need to increase food production across the planet 50% in the next 30 years or so, our options for meeting that challenge – in any sort of practical way – are limited, to wit:

When it comes to crops, we’ve run out of arable land unless we all agree to starting cutting down forests.  There aren’t enough urban “vertical gardens” to pick up the slack;
When it comes to animals, disease resistance, reproduction, and climate adaptability are key, but we don’t have multiple generations to conventionally breed those traits. Yes, it can be done humanely and safely, and
In both cases, you can’t simply tell a demanding world population what to eat, you have to at least try and give them what they want at a price they can afford.
The Luddite attitude toward biotechnology of our European brethren, combined with the activist anti-tech zeal in this country, is and will remain out-of-touch with the reality of feeding people. The focus should be how to exploit our science, technology and innovation in ways that meet needs and desires, and does so in a professional, ethical manner.  This was the underlying message of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s (BIO) Animal Summit this week in suburban Washington, DC.

The White House, in one of its end-of-term efforts, decided to take a look at how the federal government regulates biotechnology, starting with our existing programs dealing with recombinant DNA technology – the backbone of the current biotech industry – as well as emerging technologies, including gene editing.  Our current regulatory regime for both plants and animals dates back to the Reagan era, with some polishing by the second President Bush, and both truly need modernization if only to recognize it ain’t your grandma’s biotech anymore.

The first round of the Obama effort was released this month with publication of a “National Strategy for Modernizing the Regulatory System for Biotechnology Products,” the product of another White House working group.  Unfortunately, while it may have made its deadline, it falls far short of giving any concrete recommendations of how to best nurture and develop biotech in this country.  It basically says, “we’re pretty much doing this correctly, but let’s keep talking about the best ways to do this.” The conclusion is of and by itself not so helpful, but at least a very small step in the right direction.

The subtext of this new report gives no confidence the bureaucrats deeply understand biotechnology, particularly emerging technologies like gene editing.  It must give biotech companies serious angst that government approaches biotechnology as something that must be regulated simply because of what it is.  What the report does, in fact, is punt the entire issue of biotechnology regulation and how it can be brought into the 21st century into the next president’s lap.

Right now, no one has a clue if or how some emerging technologies should be regulated.  For instance, gene editing is the technique everyone will be talking about in the next 15 minutes, whether the technique is used in plants or animals.  If genetics wasn’t your first course choice during college registration – and it wasn’t mine – trust me, gene editing is very cool.

With apologies to geneticists and others who can dive far more deeply on this topic, here’s my take:  For those species of plants and animals for which a fully mapped genome is available, scientists identify which DNA strands control various characteristics, i.e. height, saline tolerance, disease resistance, etc.  Within each DNA strand are alleles controlling these individual traits – think of them as on-off switches – which can be manipulated. Gene editing allows normally horned animals to be born without the ability to grow horns by flipping the allele, thus eliminating the need for dehorning and debudding.  You can think up your own production challenge, and there’s likely a switch that can be switched.

The promise of this subset of biotechnology when it comes to food animals resistant or immune to BSE, food-and-mouth disease or avian influenza is obvious. Ditto for ending on-farm castration and other surgical processes. It doesn’t add or subtract or mix and match DNA from various species – eliminating much of the so-called “yuck factor” – and it a precise and pretty elegant process.  You can develop animals which thrive in arid geographies, or plants which can tolerate heavily saline water.  On the human health side, the potential benefits are legion.

While the science has been out there for decades, gene editing in its various iterations is the current rock star of biotechnology.  Are there philosophical and ethical implications of biotechnology.  You betcha, but those must be battled out in appropriate forums, not within government regulatory agencies.

A very smart man – who happens to be a geneticist – once said to me, the government should only be allowed to mess with technology to ensure what a company claims a technique will do, it does, and when it does it, it does it in a safe, efficient and humane manner for man and animal.

We’ve got the tools to deal with coming food challenges, and a lot of other challenges, both plant and animal.  Let’s hope we’re smart enough not to tie industry’s hands when it comes to the use of these tools.

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