Just two days before the Obama administration left office this past January, members of executive bureaucracies were hard at work pushing last-minute regulations and policies into place wherever they could. One such set of policy proposals has now been overturned, making it easier for biotech industries to be able to experiment with new foods that are hardier, quicker to grow, and more nutritious for the consumer market.
The USDA and FDA, in the twilight hours of the Obama presidency, were trying to push regulations that would have influenced the creation of genetically-improved crops and livestock using CRISPR genome-editing techniques and similar methods of gene-editing. Not only were these regulations destined to make it more difficult to improve our food sources via genome editing, they were designed to make the process more expensive and slower due to government intervention and oversight.
Essentially, the USDA and FDA had planned to treat every new genome-sequence used in food as if it were a new drug. This would have been terrible news for all involved, as the FDA process currently takes years and can cost as much as a billion dollars for every new “drug.” The USDA regulations, on the other hand, were designed to lengthen the process of approval for new plants.
The USDA and FDA responded to claims that the approval process would take time and money while slowing or halting the flow of biotech breakthroughs by suggesting that biotech businesses send their new varieties of genetically-engineered plants and animals to the USDA and FDA for pre-approval. Obviously, this step wouldn’t solve any of the problems with cost or timeline, it would just add a new headache for biotech companies to deal with.
This makes little sense, on its face. Gene-editing techniques are getting more precise with every passing day, and their precision, along with a greater scientific understanding of what they do, makes it less likely that they need oversight, not more.
Further, farmers have been genetically engineering plants since Gregor Mendel first discovered that he could cross-breed species of plants together for desirable traits. Farmers have been, knowingly or unknowingly, cross-breeding plants for centuries. For almost 100 years, breeders have been using gamma rays and caustic chemicals on plants to create new varieties.
A database detailing more than 3,000 commercially available plants that were produced through this process, known as mutagenesis, is maintained jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency, called the Mutant Variety Database (available at this link).
The FDA’s only possible claim for the validity of their regulations is fear of animal welfare issues that could result from gene-edited livestock grown around the basis of consumption. Such issues, however, can be easily addressed without requiring a lengthy and expensive process every time a new gene-edited version of an animal is designed.
Now that the USDA has dropped their regulations, it’s time that the FDA follow suit. During the Obama years, the FDA was given fairly free reign to take an expansive view of their ability to regulate, even if their regulations were not in keeping with the spirit or the letter of the law.
Another example of this rush to regulation is the way that the FDA took their legally-granted ability to regulate limited tobacco products, and deemed that this gave them the right to regulate premium cigars, pipe tobacco, E-cigarettes, and vaping fluid. In many cases, they have gone so far as to demand extensive testing procedures, including being sent a copious sample of the product, in order to license new tobacco-related products.
A fell from the Mercatus Institute, Adam Thierer, calls this “the notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default.” He goes on to state that unless a compelling argument can be made that a new invention has the capacity to bring serious harm to the society that will consume or utilize it, there is no moral basis for interfering with its development, and problems can be addressed as they arise in the future.
There has yet to be any scientific evidence that genetic modification of plants or livestock has a negative impact on those consuming them. There is no basis for the government to require a lengthy and expensive approval process.
All current proposed regulations would do is put more expense and more time between technologies, products, and the consumer. These regulations are interfering with technologies that have the opportunity to drop the price of food, to increase the supply, and that could even solve world hunger issues. Government needs to let the innovators innovate.