- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Lawmakers are examining regulations that, geneticists say, are stifling the development of gene-edited food products such as hornless cows, flu-resistant pigs and mushrooms that don’t brown.

A House subcommittee on Tuesday pressed a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official on using genetic technology to develop hogs that can’t catch African swine flu.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler asked Greg Ibach, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, if American farmers are falling behind their counterparts in China, which recently reached a deal with the British livestock genetics firm Genus to develop virus-resistant animals.

“Since it’s so hard to seek approvals, it would place U.S. farmers at enormous risk and disadvantage if other countries can access these innovations but U.S. producers can’t,” said Ms. Hartzler, Missouri Republican.

“I share your concern,” Mr. Ibach said. “I think gene-editing offers a great opportunity to address some of the consumer concerns that we have.”

Supporters of the technology dismiss worries over mutant creations as science-fiction fantasies, saying gene editing merely provides a faster way to reproduce desirable traits in plants and animals than conventional cross-breeding techniques.

“It’s a very fancy pair of scissors,” Alison L. Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist at the University of California, Davis told a briefing on Capitol Hill on Monday.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates food animal genetics, labeling any new variation in genes an “animal drug.” Only one genetically modified animal product — AquAdvantage salmon — has been approved for commercial use, and that took nearly 30 years, said Ms. Van Eenennaam.

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last year loosened restrictions on selective breeding of plants, and supporters in Congress hope a similar pathway can be developed for livestock.

“There’s been a lot of roadblocks from the FDA from a regulatory standpoint to prevent this or slow the process down,” Rep. James Comer, Kentucky Republican, said during Tuesday’s hearing of the House Agriculture subcommittee on livestock. “What can we do to get the roadblocks out of the way to where we can progress with this type of technological advancement?”

“I think you have lots of options available to you in Congress,” the USDA’s Mr. Ibach said without specifying what lawmakers could do.

In January 2017, the FDA released a draft guidance that bolstered the classification of genetically modified livestock as animal drugs requiring federal approval.

Meanwhile, other countries, such as Canada, have loosened such regulations. Last May, Minnesota-based Recombinetics teamed with the Canadian genetics company Semex to start breeding hornless dairy cattle that are unable to gore other cows.

The FDA’s 2017 guidance still needs to be finalized and there is no indication whether the rule will open up genetics, an agency spokesperson told The Washington Times on Tuesday.

“First and foremost, the FDA is committed to protecting the safety of the American public at all times,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The prospect of deregulating genetics worries Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety.

“Turning off a gene that’s been in the cow for a long time? OK. Turning off the gene to brown mushrooms? OK,” Mr. Hanson said. “But what happens when it’s more than that?”

Genetic modification might introduce new genes and characteristics that could have unforeseen consequences, he said, urging caution in the regulatory community.

“When you start putting other traits in or messing around with traits, such as changing the growth rate of the animal, then I’m concerned,” Mr. Hanson said.

Still, agriculture producers hope the Trump administration may lend a hand in removing red tape for genetic technology.

Dana O’Brien, executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said his trade group wants a “pragmatic solution that works for the food supply chain.”

“It’s important we get this right so we can foster American innovation and responsibly implement biology-driven solutions to combat deadly animal diseases, improve farmworker and animal welfare, and strengthen our food security,” Mr. O’Brien said in an email.

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