Florida scientist proposes phased deregulation of biotech crops

Opposition to biotech crops and foods is based on politics and ideology rather than science, says a University of Florida researcher who believes the regulatory requirements for plant biotechnology should be lifted.

“The biotechnology community — which includes academia, industry and the regulatory agencies — has been patient and on the defensive for too long,” said Indra Vasil, a graduate research professor emeritus with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It is time now to shift the debate from unnecessary regulation to deregulation.

“After growing these crops for many years on more than 400 million acres of land in various countries and after more than a billion people using biotech foods, there is not a single instance where they have been shown to cause illness in humans or animals or any environmental damage,” Vasil said.

In a commentary in the August issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, Vasil wrote that the “enviable and unblemished record” of biotech crops and their products is the strongest evidence for their safety and wholesomeness, and he calls for an end to government control over them.

“Two decades ago, the United States pioneered the rules and regulations for the development, testing and use of biotech plants and their products. Now it's time for the U.S. to assert its leadership once again by relaxing and gradually eliminating the regulatory oversight on biotech crops, except in those rare instances where there is a likelihood of risk to human health and the environment,” he said.

Biotech plants designed to protect crops from weeds, pests of pathogens include 80 percent of the soybean acreage, 70 percent of the cotton acreage and 38 percent of corn acreage in the United States this year. The annual market for biotech seeds now exceeds $3 billion.

“These improved crops are beginning to have a positive impact on human health, the environment, the economy and our shared future by reducing the use of harmful agrochemicals and by contributing to the conservation of biodiversity, scarce arable land, and precious water and energy resources,” Vasil said.

The UF scientist said the next generation of biotech crops now being evaluated for commercial production includes those with improved nutritional characteristics and shelf life, tolerance to a variety of pests and growing conditions; and those designed for the production of vaccines, pharmaceuticals and many other useful substances.

“Research has shown that transgenic technology is no different from conventional plant breeding except that it is inherently more precise and predictable,” he said.

It is the consensus of the international scientific community that biotech crops and their products are at least as safe for humans and the environment as crops developed by conventional plant breeding methods. That community includes regulatory authorities in many countries, several of the most respected and well-known national scientific academies and medical societies and various organizations of the United Nations.

Anti-biotechnology activists continue to call for a moratorium or outright ban on the planting or use of biotech crops.

“Their rhetoric is alarming and frightening but lacking in substance,” he said. “These groups continue to insist that biotech crops are unsafe without offering any credible scientific evidence to support their allegations.

“The consumer, the farmer and the biotechnology industry have all been ill-served — indeed held hostage — by the sustained campaign of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims of dangers to public health and the environment,” Vasil said. “The anti-biotechnology movement is clearly based on political and ideological opposition to biotechnology and the globalization rather than any real scientific concerns.”

He said the continued moratorium on biotech crops by the European Union and some of the western European countries is a protectionist maneuver aimed at appeasing certain political parties.

“In my vies, obstructing or otherwise impeding the introduction of biotech crops, particularly in the most populous and less-developed countries which will benefit most from this technology, is morally and socially irresponsible and indefensible,” he said.

Plant biotechnology, along with traditional plant breeding, offers the best hope of tripling food production during the next 50 years to feed a projected world population of nearly 12 billion people, Vasil said.

“Population increases in China, India and other developing nations, coupled with changing dietary habits and improved buying power, mean that we must move toward greater use of biotechnology n agriculture,” he said. “Moreover, the food needs of the future must be met on less arable land and with less water than ever before — without harming the environment.”

Vasil said the present level of regulatory oversight is now unnecessary because it needlessly increases the cost of biotech products and unduly delays their introduction into the international agricultural system.

“Regulatory decisions should be based on science rather than emotions and perceived risks,” he said. “A beginning should be made by removing all restrictions on the cultivation and use of biotech crops that have fulfilled regulatory requirements and have been cultivated or used for five years without any ill effects on humans or the environment. These include herbicide-resistant soybean and canola plants, insect-resistant maize and cotton, and virus-resistant squash and papaya.

New biotech crops with similar genes should not be required to meet the regulatory requirements for more than two years unless thee are clear signs of risks, he said.

“Crops with genes that have not been previously tested under field conditions should be monitored for a period of two to five years and then released for unrestricted cultivation unless proven to be harmful,” Vasil said. Crops engineered for the production of drugs and vaccines should be physically isolated from all other crops to prevent accidental pollination of non-transgenic plants.

Like all other foods, the future of biotech crops and foods should be determined by the farmer, the consumer and the marketplace, he said.

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