Today, comments close on a proposed set of USDA rules changes related to approval of genetically-engineered products - and the Trump administration is honoring its commitment to using evidence-based thinking regarding agricultural policy.
As I wrote in Chicago Tribune last week, approval of products engineered using modern science rather than simply modified using older, less precise techniques like mutagenesis, have to go through an approval process trapped in the last century. It makes little sense. Popular crops have long been altered with the use of agrobacterium, "nature's genetic engineer", which was discovered by USDA plant pathologists Erwin Smith and Charles Townsend 110 years ago. Bacterium tumefaciens became the basis for discovering the "tumor inducing principle" in plant diseases, and that led to horizontal gene transfer which has held off crop diseases and devastating economic loss in cotton. By learning how "crown gall" developed and how agrobacterium hijacked biological plant signals scientists learned how to naturally prevent it, and agrobacterium mediated transfer breakthroughs also led to scientists taking the gene from the organic-certified, pest-killing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium and putting it in corn to eliminate insects - without the bacteria middleman.
During the final days of the Obama administration, USDA introduced some new guidelines, which would mandate approval based on risk to the environment and human health - not just because they have been genetically modified.
This was a real breakthrough and I urged the Trump administration not to undo these new guidelines - let's use a laser, not a shotgun, I said.
And the administration agrees. Last week, at the first meeting of a new interdepartmental task force on improving rural America, President Trump's U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said, “We are going to bring cases at the WTO and other venues, we’re going to insist that any barrier be science-based, and the United States will increase exports.”
Numerous presidents have given lip service to doing that, but this is the first time such a bold assertion has been made. The administration seems intent on insisting upon science-based regulation as a way of removing obstacles to American export of genetically engineered crops, so much so that they will attack capricious overseas regulations on import, such as in Europe, using the World Trade Organization, which was ostensibly founded to block arbitrary protectionism but hasn't had much in the way of success stopping it.
Currently, GMOs are allowed in European animal feed, for example, but Europeans block it in other foods. Bt spray can be applied broad spectrum, and is considered organic, but is limited when it comes to being expressed naturally by being targeted in new plants. That's the definition of arbitrary.
President Trump’s executive order creating the task force had 13 areas for examination, the first two which will warm the hearts of the agricultural science community, which currently lacks the political and cultural shield environmentalists protect climate science with and instead gets vilified by those groups. First on this list is removing “barriers to economic prosperity and quality of life in rural America” and the second is the advancement of agricultural technology.
As we have seen with drug discovery, America provides a trickle-down effect for the world in all science and technology. If Europe is forced to use science for food approval, that means developing nations can export into Europe. Right now they can't, they were not born part of the Agricultural 1%, where food grows easily, so in order to be viable at all, they have to use science to work with soils and climates that are just not as good. Europe has been using their anti-science policies to insure that developing countries cannot compete.
China is no better. They certainly benefit from our trade imbalance and that is why they have randomly blocked "unapproved" GMOs from the United States.
The WTO should be looking into that, but has not had a world leader pressing the science issue before. The task force is required to issue a report with recommendations for action within 180 days.
For the world of agricultural innovation, this should be a positive development.