Regulation in agricultural research may be necessary to insure product and system safety, says David Baltensperger, but government agencies err in trying to regulate production to the point that researchers and individual farmers are denied access to necessary tools.
Controversies surrounding genetically modified crops (GMOs) top the list of issues his organization follows, says Baltensperger, who is head of the Department of Soil and Crop Science at Texas A&M University and president of the Crop Science Society of America.
He cited other issues during a presentation at the recent Texas Plant Protection Association annual conference at Bryan. They include climate change, bioenergy, water quality, intellectual property, scientific travel, food labeling, drones in agriculture and pesticide/technology registration.
He says misinformation often results in negative responses to new products — GMOs being a prime example. In a recent survey, he says, 80 percent of respondents indicated they did not want GMO ingredients in their food. “But 80 percent also responded that they did not want DNA in their food either.”
He says it’s important that scientific organizations such as the CSSA coordinate with other scientific groups, industry, university researchers, and others to dispel the myths surrounding agriculture technology.
TAKING LEADERSHIP ROLE
CSSA has more than 3,000 members, but also works in partnership with more than 10,000 scientists when joined with the Soil Science Society of America and the American Society of Agronomy. Baltensperger also represents CSSA on the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, an umbrella organization representing more than 150,000 scientists. Other connections include the National Association of Plant Breeders and the National Germplasm Coordinating Committee. Combined, these organizations represent one of the largest collections of agricultural scientists in the world.
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These associations, Baltensperger says, are taking a leadership role in providing reliable information about GMOs and other agricultural technology.
He explains that GMO science is also evolving. “In addition to traditional GMO, we now have RNAi technology — gene editing — through which scientists can repair proteins in DNA.” RNA interference (RNAi) is a highly evolutionarily conserved mechanism of gene regulation. The process, he says, works effectively on an individual gene and results in “less change to the original plant than does traditional GMO processes.”
This and other evolving technologies could pave the way for a “fast track” approval process for new products. Currently, a company will spend $100 million to get approval for a genetically engineered product, a price tag that puts the process out of reach of university research, he says. “No university, without a large corporate sponsor, will have trait approval. And the public distrusts big companies.”
PERHAPS EASIER APPROVAL
A possible change in the approval process could be based on risk assessment and the degree of change to the original organism. Reworking or editing genes from the same plant that causes no major alterations in the plant could be easier to approve.
Genes from different plants that would cause no major change in the plant “would require additional testing,” Baltensperger explains. A corn plant that could fix nitrogen, for instance, would be a trickier process. So would transferring genes from warm season plants to cool season plants to improve photosynthesis. “That would involve a lot of genes.”
The approval process to develop plants that make insulin or blood protein would be tested much more thoroughly.
He says use of drones/unmanned aerial systems in agriculture also will be scrutinized and regulated. “No one wants to see a crop management drone collide with a passenger jet,” he says. “But drones have tremendous potential in agriculture. We want to see regulations that are reasonable for the way we use the tools. We don’t want to see regulation to such an extent that research or individuals can’t use these systems.”