Talk Of Productivity, Regulation Reform at Biotech Hearing

June 24, 2011 Bookmark and Share

Agricultural applications of biotechnology can help feed the world and preserve resources, but the regulatory process the technologies must go through is problematic, witnesses said Thursday at a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee with jurisdiction over the technology.

Three witnesses appeared at the hearing – Charles Conner, head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a former USDA official; Roger Beachy, former head of USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and former director of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; and Calestous Juma, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

All three spoke to the enormous productivity gains possible in developed and developing countries with the responsible application of biotechnology in plants and, in some cases, animals.

They also all touched on recent complications in the U.S. regulatory system, which is complex and subject to litigation that can delay a determination for years.

Regulatory approval of a new biotech trait is now estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars while the process between between trait discovery and approval can take up to 10 years.

“The need to support this technology is not in question. The question is how to enable biotechnology to move forward to meet future needs,” Conner told Members at the hearing.

“Legal decisions not based in science put the U.S. at risk of not being able to capitalize on the opportunities and benefits provided by biotechnology. They also represent an unnecessary drain on the resources of the federal government, commodity organizations and biotechnology companies.”

Beachy was more direct in his comments.

“This is an exciting period of time in discovery and innovation. Unfortunately, it is not an exciting time for delivering new products of agriculture biotechnology to consumers or to those who would invest in the future of agriculture,” he testified.

“While not all discoveries lead to innovation and new products, there are a growing number of examples of new inventions developed through genetic engineering that have good likelihood of success and that continue to be delayed in reaching the marketplace because of regulatory processes that are ill-defined and/or unpredictable, sometimes irrational, and always costly. This is an area for significant concern to inventors and entrepreneurs, and is worthy of attention and reform.”

Beachy said that since 1987, more than 2 billion acres of biotech crops have been grown by 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries. The products of these crops have been consumed in billions of meals over a 20-year period, with no “novel, negative consequence” reported.

There is no commercialized biotech wheat anywhere in the world, but the wheat industry works on biotechnology issues because its leaders believe biotechnology’s introduction into the wheat crop is necessary to increase productivity, attract acres back to the crop and feed a growing global population sustainably.

For purposes of the hearing, NAWG associated itself with Conner’s testimony and provided wheat-specific information as necessary. More information about the wheat industry’s biotech work is at www.wheatworld.org/biotech.

A webcast of the hearing can be viewed online at http://agriculture.edgeboss.net/wmedia/agriculture/20110623b.wvx.