Biotech Regulatory Delays are Smothering Innovation
Jul 24, 2014
By Mark Wagoner: Touchet, Washington
Brazil didn’t win the World Cup on its home turf earlier this month, but the country’s investment in the needed infrastructure to host the world proved to be a real winner. Today Brazil is beating the rest of the planet in an area that’s less visible but more important long-term: an effective biotechnology regulatory system.
No country approves safe crops with the newest ag biotech innovations with more speed than Brazil.
Unfortunately, Washington seems to approach the matter like a soccer goalie: It wants to block everything. At least that’s what the current numbers suggest.
Just seven years ago, Brazil and the United States needed about the same amount of time to review new products in agricultural biotechnology: Brazil took a little less than 600 days and the United States took a little more. Brazil was more efficient, but at least the two countries were in the same ballpark—or on the same soccer pitch.
Brazil, however, has worked hard to improve its methods. Since 2010, it has needed an average of just 372 days between first application and final approval. That’s a year and a week.
Meanwhile, U.S. regulators have raced in the opposite direction. They’ve behaved like Tim Howard, the American goalie who set the record for most stops in a World Cup game. Since 2010, they’ve needed an average of more than 1,200 days to approve new products.
That’s almost three years.
This poor performance gives a whole new meaning to a term many of us casual fans of soccer have come to know: extra time.
These delays are killing American competitiveness. And it’s not just Brazil. Two of our other major competitors in food production, Argentina and Canada, are also much quicker to approve biotech traits.
This means that farmers in those countries soon will enjoy access to better crop technologies than we possess in the United States.
I’ve seen the trouble firsthand on my farm. I grow alfalfa seed—and for years, we’ve been waiting for the federal government to approve an excellent product developed by a consortium of companies, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, and the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, which is a federal agency.
It’s called reduced-lignin alfalfa, and it promises an improved product with more yield and less farm work. In other words, fewer harvests will generate additional tons of a plant that’s more digestible for dairy cows. This variety of alfalfa is better in every way. And yes, consumers will benefit too: When we save money in our fields, consumers will save it when they buy milk in their grocery stores.
The only thing not to like about reduced-lignin alfalfa is the regulatory bureaucracy surrounding its approval—or, more precisely, its non-approval. This safe and excellent product continues to remain just beyond the reach of farmers, for no reason any of us can understand.
Regulatory systems must be science-based and timely. They also must be predictable. Right now, the only thing we can predict about GM crop approvals is that they’ll take far too long. On our farm, we can’t plan what to grow or when to rotate our crops.
What’s more, investors are becoming reluctant to devote research-and-development dollars to agriculture. The world desperately needs new ways to produce more food, but biotech-approval delays smother the innovations that might help us meet this essential goal of the 21st century.
Earlier this year, Mike Firko, a biotech regulator at the Department of Agriculture, promised to clear up a big backlog of crop petitions by the end of this year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he was referring to petitions filed before November 2011, which is closer in time to the World Cup hosted by South Africa than the one that just finished in Brazil.
The Department of Agriculture has said it should be able to go through an application in 450 days or less. That’s a long time—longer than what Brazil needs right now—but also a tremendous improvement over current practices.
When it comes to biotech regulations is it too much to hope that we might keep pace with a country like Brazil? Do we dare hope that we’ll have access to reduced-lignin alfalfa in two years, when the Summer Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro?
Mark Wagoner is a third generation farmer in Walla Walla County, Washington where they raise alfalfa seed. Mark volunteers as a Board member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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