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Asleep at the Wheel on Biotechnology

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“This is the first time in 10 years this Committee has held a hearing on agriculture biotechnology” — are  you kidding me? Not according to  Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. Given the advancements in biotechnology, the impact on food production, and the controversy it has generated worldwide, you would think that the Senate committee charged with oversight of agriculture would have had dozens of hearings on the subject. In his opening statement, Roberts admitted the hearing, held last week, was long overdue, “Science has come a long way in those 10 years, and we recognize those beneficial advances today.” While I commend Roberts for holding the hearing, the lack of Congressional  leadership on this important issue for the past decade is reprehensible.

There are three government agencies that regulate biotechnology in food production: the USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Roberts had representatives of all three agencies testify before the committee. But given the level of technological advancement in this area and the number of regulations these agencies produce, should not this kind of hearing be at least an annual event?  In their presentations, the regulators stressed the safety of biotechnology and their efforts to protect our food supply and the environment.

This was far from a biotech love fest, with several witnesses calling for changes in the way biotechnology in agriculture is regulated. Gregory Jaffe, Project Director for Biotechnology with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “CSPI has advocated for improvements in the federal oversight of GE crops to ensure safety to humans, animals, the environment, and agriculture.”  Those “improvements” consist of tighter regulations and more direct government control on how farmers use biotech technology. This is something farmers would not want and current conditions do not justify.

This hearing was a result of legislation before the Senate that deals with the labeling of food products that contain GMOs. While much of the public concern over GMO labels and safety is due to activist groups and the misinformation they produce, some blame needs to be laid before Congress for not providing regular and public reviews of the technology and the regulations that govern it. Following the hearing National Corn Grower representative John Linder, a farmer from Edison, Ohio, said, “Today’s testimony underscored the fact that biotechnology is not only safe, but an important part of creating an efficient, affordable, and reliable food chain.” Yet, biotechnology faces a tough road ahead in the Senate because of a lack of understanding by many lawmakers.

Just as farmers must be vigilant and manage this technology wisely, policy makers and elected officials must also stay alert to new advances and research and must provide adequate reassurance to the public that their food is safe and that proper regulations are in place. It should not be another 10 years before Congress holds a review of biotechnology and its use in agriculture.

By Gary Truitt