Gene editing industry officials lobbying to take power to regulate away from FDA, says report

Will gene editing ever become a widely accepted practice when it comes to raising livestock and other animals? While the answer to that question is still unclear, it appears that industry officials are now doing everything in their power to remove regulations that are standing in their way. Indeed, there is reportedly a lobbying effort underway to get the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stand down and become more accommodating, all in the name of biotech research progress.

Based on an online report from MIT Technology Review, a magazine published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, industry officials are attempting to get the POTUS Donald Trump himself to give them a hand by taking the responsibility to regulate animals from the FDA to the Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is for the simple reason that the agency has already decided, on a separate matter, that gene editing can be done on products without any regulation whatsoever. This has evidently been the case with gene-edited plants, which later end up being harvested and sold.

Basically, what industry officials want is for regulations to disappear, thereby giving them the freedom to continue tweaking pig and cow genes to get their desired results. The easier they can do that, the better their performance on the market is expected to be. The idea is that, if it’s possible to sell gene-edited crops without subjecting them to a wide variety of tests, the exact same should also be possible for gene-edited beef.

If you look into the matter closely, you’ll find that there’s a clear reason why those tests are highly necessary. And that’s because of the fact that food regulation in the U.S. has very strict rules which were formulated during much simpler times – when those in charge couldn’t account for such advances as gene editing technology. Currently, the USDA is in charge of inspecting most meat, raw fruits and vegetables, and processed eggs, among other products. But they have no control over genetically modified animals, which are supervised by the FDA. (Related: Controversial gene-editing procedure to fight AIDS is again being considered by scientists, despite disastrous results a decade ago.)

One company that would benefit from a decision to transfer all GMO-related tasks from the FDA to the USDA is Recombinetics, a research institute based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which prides itself in being the biotech leader in animal gene editing for agriculture. Recombinetics and its partners in the industry have achieved some success already, and they want to take things even further, but the industry regulations are currently stopping them.

According to Cassie Edgar, a biotech regulatory lawyer at McKee, Voorhees & Sease and serves as a chairperson on a committee on animal biotechnology policy for BIO, they see an opportunity because the administration has already shown that it can be business-friendly. “Under Trump, this is the one flickering change of getting it changed,” said Edgar. “This is the one change to make a broad impact.”

When you look at what Recombinetics has been doing so far, as far as gene editing is concerned, you’ll see that they have developed methods to get cows without horns and pigs without tails. They could argue that these methods are only meant to improve the production process and would eventually benefit consumers. However, if they do plan to sell these genetically modified products to consumers, then that’s exactly why the battery of tests are needed as part of regulation: To make sure that the products they are selling are safe for consumption.

Gene editing could potentially have disastrous consequences, and there may not be enough data to completely rule out that possibility for now. But even if it were completely safe, the mere fact that industry officials are looking to skirt regulations in the way that they plan to is highly questionable. One can only hope that the government agencies in charge of all this don’t fail to perform their duties and allow major problems to occur in the long run.

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