AAAS Friday – "GM Crop Regulations: Safety Net or Insurmountable Obstacle"

The panel on genetic food was another one I had to miss part of due to overlaps with other interesting ones; this time I came in just after Kate left. A major theme I got from the remaining speakers was that the current way of regulating GMO food is overly restrictive, and inappropriate for the relatively low risk scientific evidence would support.

This started with Roger Beachy from the USDA (I think, missed the name, but that was the name the person in the abstract with that affiliation which I did catch), who went through the process he has been involved with developing a strain of plums that are resistant to Plum Pox Virus (PPX) since 1990. This is accomplished by inserting a piece of DNA that will produce RNA complementary to the viral genome, turning off protein expression through RNAi. This process of protecting crops was also used to protect papyas in Hawaii, one of the few forms of genetic modification that has been deregulated so far. This mechanism was only recently identified however, which partially explains the slow progress in developing the PPX resistant plums. It has been cleared by Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Food and Drug Administration, and is expected to be approved by the EPA soon. Dr. Beachy was especially critical of the EPA as being more difficult to work with than other agencies. One particular complaint was the fact that the current regulations require the EPA to regulate this modification as a Plant Incorporated Pesticide, despite the fact that no proteins are produced and it acts through silencing viral proteins instead. This requires a lot of additional studies to show safety that are clearly not applicable to this sort of protection from a virus.

The second speaker was Drew Kershon, who started by pointing out that he is lawyer rather than a scientist and would focus on policy. Despite this disclaimer he referred to scientific evidence pretty frequently, though it was accurate as far as I understand. He started by quoting a report form the National Academies written in 1987 that said there were “no unique risks” to GMOs compared to other forms of producing new strains of plants, and the science since then hasn’t changed the support for that view. He specifically looked for a report from Europe given the more precautionary stance over there, and quoted one saying there have been “very few unexpected results” from modified organisms, with most of the “unexpected results” referring to benefits from the crops protecting non-modified crops that were grown nearby. Mr. Kershon went on to say it could make sense to have a series of tiers with different levels of restriction with each form of modification being treated individually, since some modifications deserve more scrutiny than others. However most crops have ended up being left with the most restrictive regulations in place. He argued that this is not for science reasons, but based on market considerations, which go beyond the authority of agencies like the FDA and EPA to have a say over.

There was a fair bit of overlap between the final two speakers, Hector Quernada speaking about the challenges of developing transgenic crops by the public sector and Allen McHughen describing the difficulties in developing “orphan crops” that may be of limited economic value to a private company, but have significant benefits to particular areas. The overlap coming from these crops generally being developed by academics with public funding. Since this is the case, as taxpayers we have made a significant investment in developing this crops, but have gained little from this investment due to the difficulties in bringing them to users. Right now only three have been approved that didn’t have the backing of private companies. Dr. McHughen went over results from a recent paper looking at the areas that seemed plausible bottlenecks – technical problems, intellectual property issues, safety, and regulatory hurdles. Of these he’s found some minor difficulties with intellectual property, though usually there’s workarounds available. Instead the main problems have been in dealing with regulatory agencies. (Note I’m relying on my notes of McHugen’s description, not having time to read the original paper yet). One of the main problems public institutions have in getting approval is having the resources to go through the whole process. Dr. Quernada mentioned there is the the group Specialty Crop Regulatory Assistance that can help navigate this process.

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