Yeutter Institute offers insights on boosting ag biotech innovation

by Geitner Simmons | IANR Media

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Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing
October 11, 2023

Agricultural biotechnology can play a key role in meeting growing global food demand if a series of regulatory, policy and public education challenges are strategically addressed, says a new report from a roundtable of experts convened by the Clayton Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance.

The report recommends streamlining redundant U.S. regulatory protocols, as well as emphasizing clarity and uniformity in countries’ regulations on sanitary and phytosanitary trade issues. International trade agreements should include agricultural biotech provisions, and science-based outreach is needed to boost public understanding of safe technologies such as gene-edited crops.

Participants in the Yeutter Institute project included high-level government officials from the current and previous presidential administrations, farmers, plus academics and practitioners in plant genetics, agricultural sciences, economics and law. The Yeutter Institute is part of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Global population is on course to reach 9.3 billion by 2050, up from the current 8.1 billion, and ag biotech innovation is crucial to increase crop yields. But, the report says, “the U.S. regulatory process threatens to hold up innovation” because the “cumbersome regulatory structure can result in duplicative reviews and is a costly burden on innovators.”

U.S. officials can help, the report recommends, by streamlining and coordinating the redundant regulatory processes for ag biotech conducted separately by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency.

The Yeutter Institute has begun preliminary briefings with Capitol Hill staff in Washington, D.C., about the group’s findings and will share with trade professionals and other interested groups, as well.

“Convening people who bring a variety of experiences and perspectives to trade policy discussions is core to the Yeutter Institute mission, and that is what we did with this project,” said Jill O’Donnell, Haggart-Work Director of the Yeutter Institute. “It’s important for policymakers to hear from a broad spectrum of voices as they make decisions, and that includes voices representing various aspects of the agriculture industry, as well as those from the Midwest.”

The document also underscores the need to remove trade impediments to be competitive globally. China has launched an initiative to dominate agricultural seed technology and innovation, and the Chinese government has put up roadblocks to approving U.S.-developed seeds in favor of domestic seed development, the report says.

Countries can use the World Trade Organization’s international agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary issues as a baseline to set uniform, science-based standards. Such a step, the report notes, would reduce complexity and complication in global agricultural trade, especially helping developing nations as they work to expand their ag export opportunities.

“The days of (free trade agreements) are not necessarily over forever, but in agriculture, we need transparency and science-based regulatory approaches as much as we need traditional market access,” the report says. Such an approach “is especially advantageous for developing countries that face a more acute need to improve their own productivity to feed their people.”

The report explains that gene editing for crops is an extension, at an accelerated pace, of trait-focused crop breeding used for millennia. “Gene-editing techniques can be a shortcut to a breeding process that occurs naturally,” the report says. “It’s a scientific way to introduce genetic variability, which farmers have been doing for decades. In fact, plant breeding dates back thousands of years to when people first domesticated wild plants.”

In the mid-20th century, Iowa agronomist Norman Borlaug devoted hundreds of hours to the meticulous breeding of wheat varieties and won international plaudits, including a Nobel Prize, for the resulting landmark improvements in crop yields. Modern gene editing for crops uses the same basic scientific method but at a far more efficient pace, the report notes. Such innovation is vital, the report says, to boost crop yields adequate to meet the world’s growing food demand.

Outreach efforts that explain the safety and importance of these scientific techniques are needed to enable further innovation, the report notes.

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