The U.S. has long been the leading supplier of high-quality, safe and affordable pork. But Mike Paustian, Iowa Pork Producers Association president, fears the country could lose this competitive advantage when it comes to gene editing technology.
Paustian, a hog farmer from Walcott, Iowa, testified on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday that the U.S. is in danger of losing its leadership standing due to flaws in its current approach to regulating emerging animal breeding technologies. Oversight of gene editing technology should be under the USDA, not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), he said.
"I want to be very clear that we are not advocating for de-regulation of these new technologies," Paustian said. "Farmers support scientifically sound, transparent, risk-based regulations that ensure that these new tools are effective and safe for both animals and consumers. Our concern is not if this technology should be regulated, but rather by who and under what authority.”
One piece of the puzzle
The committee members were receptive to the idea of moving regulatory authority for gene-edited animals over to USDA. But this is just the beginning, Paustian says.
“This is just one of the puzzle pieces that has to fall into place for these new genetic technologies to make it to market,” he says. “The regulatory component is important – there has to be a clear regulatory pathway that doesn’t stifle innovation but at the same time provides confidence to the consumer that products are safe and healthy.”
The bigger piece of the puzzle? Consumer acceptance.
“This is where all of us as producers have to pitch in. As people learn about gene editing, they will have questions about it and will approach pork producers wanting to know why this is technology they want to use,” Paustian says. “We have to be prepared to answer those questions. I think it’s important to be able to talk to consumers about how this technology will benefit them.”
For instance, consumers are asking for less antibiotic use. If we can make small, precise changes to an animal’s genome to make them more resistant to certain diseases, we’ll have to treat sick pigs less, he explains.
The same thing holds true for sustainability. Animals that grow faster, don’t get sick and make it to market sooner will take less feed to get them to be market weight.
“We have to be able to explain to consumers why they will see a benefit,” he emphasizes.
An unfair competitive advantage
Countries like China, Canada, Brazil and Argentina are moving quickly to gain a competitive advantage in the market, he says.
Despite no statutory requirement, the FDA currently claims regulatory authority over gene editing in food-producing animals, an NPPC release said. FDA oversight treats any gene-edited animal as a living animal drug, which means every farm raising gene-edited animals is considered a drug manufacturing facility.
"The FDA has insisted that farmers are simply misunderstanding its regulatory proposal. This is incorrect,” Paustian testified. “Alternative strategies the FDA could pursue under its authority have been put forth by multiple stakeholders and quickly rejected, if considered at all. The agency has not addressed this concern in any meaningful way."
It’s time for a new approach, Paustian says. He was pleased the committee understood the urgency at which this needs to be addressed. The U.S. could fall behind other countries who are moving forward with regulatory frameworks around this technology.
USDA currently has a review process in place for genetic editing in plants under its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which can easily be adopted for livestock, Paustian said.