Only the USDA can unlock gene editing’s potential
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Nov. 3 marked One Health Day (www.onehealthcommission.org) – an international campaign to recognize the importance of a broad, trans-disciplinary approach to solving global health challenges. The One Health idea recognizes the inextricable interconnections among all people, animals, plants and their shared environment. As a veterinarian and pork producer, I see these links in many ways, especially in efforts to prevent and treat disease and in work to ensure a safe, stable, efficient and affordable food supply. I also see an obstacle to achieving goals in these areas. Namely, I am concerned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) attempts to claim regulatory oversight of gene edited livestock rather than cede that oversight to the appropriate authorities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Gene editing in livestock holds exciting promise in food safety and animal health and welfare. The technology is a quick, cheap and precise method that accelerates genetic improvements that could be achieved naturally through years of breeding. For instance, gene editing promises to reduce the need to use antibiotics in livestock agriculture. It could target an area of DNA to produce animals resistant to devastating diseases like Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), a highly contagious swine disease that causes significant animal suffering and costs pork producers billions of dollars worldwide. Secondary infections from PRRS are one of the main reasons we need to treat pigs with antibiotics. My fellow producers and I recognize the importance of using antibiotics responsibly in animals and in humans to protect the health and well-being of both while striving to reduce the overall need for antibiotics so as to maintain their efficacy for future generations. Reducing the need to use antibiotics is good for the animal, good for our food supply and good for helping slow the evolution of drug-resistant diseases.

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Unfortunately, the FDA is stretching a decades-old administrative framework designed for transgenic biotechnology to lay oversight claim to gene editing in livestock. The FDA approach would regulate the edited animal’s DNA, thereby turning the animal itself and its progeny in perpetuity into the regulated product – a walking “animal drug” and the farm, a drug producing facility. Farmers and producers would face costly and lengthy FDA approval, effectively rendering this technology unavailable to them. This is not appropriate or practicable and will stifle innovation.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which already regulates gene editing in plants, can provide proper and risk-based regulatory review under the Animal Health Protection Act to assure the safety of pork produced by these animals. Other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Australia are using this kind of approach in their regulation of gene editing. American producers risk losing ground to producers in these countries if we follow the FDA path. This has not only the obvious economic consequences, but also food supply and human health implications. A bogged down regulatory system and the expense of time from decades of animal breeding will hinder genetic improvements keeping American livestock susceptible to devastating diseases such as PRRS. An accidental infection in the United States could destabilize the food supply and undermine economic security in rural America. And without robust development of gene editing as a method of disease prevention and treatment, farmers will be forced to rely more heavily on antibiotics to prevent and treat disease in their animals. Science and innovation should drive America’s risk-based approach to gene editing and APHIS can ensure proper oversight under the Animal Health Protection Act.

We live in an interconnected world, bound together by trade, travel and technology. American producers of food, goods and services depend on markets at home and abroad. Likewise, the global population, which the UN projects to grow on average by 83 million per year, depends on robust and innovative American agriculture to help fulfill its food needs. The health and well-being of each side of this supply and demand equation is undeniably important and inextricably linked. And that is why I am concerned about attempts by the FDA to seize regulatory oversight of gene editing in livestock. As a pork producer and veterinarian, I want access to innovative tools and technology to help meet global health and food challenges. I urge the Trump administration to give the USDA chief regulatory authority over gene editing in livestock.

Gordon Spronk is a veterinarian and pork producer from Pipestone, Minnesota. Dr. Spronk serves on the boards of the National Pork Producers Council, Swine Health Information Center and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.