Val Giddings, senior fellow at ITIF and the event’s moderator, opened the panel with a brief recap of recent advances in biotechnology. Research into naturally occurring processes like CRISPR, he argued, provide increased understanding that genetic engineering will allow researchers to “mimic these natural phenomena to better heal, feed, fuel, and clothe humanity.” To counteract public unease with these biotechnological advances, Giddings urged a focus on concrete solutions that genetic engineering can provide to the most intractable public health and agricultural policy challenges.
Tim Eyrich, vice president for research and commercialization at Southern Gardens Citrus, spoke about his company’s experience on the front lines of the Florida citrus industry’s fight against citrus greening disease. The blight, which is carried by small insects called psyllids and is not native to the United States, has slammed Florida’s orange industry in recent years. Florida is “100 percent infected – every grove has this disease,” said Eyrich, and citrus greening can reduce a grove’s yield by “50, 60, 70 percent.” Working with the University of Florida, Texas A&M, the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, USDA-RS, and international collaborators, Southern Gardens is developing several methods to combat greening. These include using a genetically engineered version of the citrus tristeza virus (CTV) to transfer natural defenses found in spinach to citrus trees as an inoculation, as well as using RNA interference (RNAi) to render psyllids unable to transmit the disease. CTV “likes to be stacked, it can accept a lot of cassettes,” Eyrich said, adding that he hopes the same virus Southern Citrus uses to inoculate trees will also be able to address other citrus diseases, some of which “are worse than greening.”
Doug Cole, Simplot Plant Sciences’s director of marketing and communications, began by noting that “the potato is imperfect.” Issues like bruising, acrylamide (a naturally occurring carcinogen), disease, and difficulty of storage cause food waste and raise health concerns. Simplot sought to address these four concerns through “gene silencing… [which] turns down the volume on things [the potato] naturally expresses,” said Cole. In Simplot’s first-generation potato, Cole explained, this technique reduced acrylamide by 70 percent, cut bruising by about half, and eliminated browning once a potato is cut. The generation two potato, Cole continued, can also be kept in cold-storage and is resistant to blight thanks to an added gene from a wild potato from the Andes. According to Cole, Simplot’s consumer research revealed that consumers say they would be willing to buy a GMO or transgenic (incorporating genes from other species) produce item just 32 percent of the time; for produce grown with innate technology like gene silencing, that number is 62 percent; and for plants bred with traditional methods like grafting and cross-pollination, 65 percent would be willing to purchase produce. Cole argued that the latter number is particularly concerning, because those traditional methods are how crops have been grown for millennia. “People just don’t know how food is made, they don’t think about it.” In fact, Cole said, because Simplot’s product doesn’t need sulfite-laden preservatives, “this is the safest and most sustainable potato of its kind.” Cole concluded by arguing that the advent of new, cheaper gene-editing technologies like CRISPR may open the door to new bioengineering startups, because it won’t take “130 million [dollars] and 13 years to bring a new product to market.”
Hadyn Parry of Intrexon focused on his work as CEO of Oxitec and the company’s effort to combat mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever. “The natural reaction to these new diseases is, ‘let’s go find a vaccine,’” said Parry, “but the issue is, by the time you develop your vaccine, actually the world has moved on and there’s a new virus that’s the problem.” The problem stems from a focus on pathogens instead of vectors, argued Parry, while “frankly, we are sleepwalking when it comes to mosquito control.” One mosquito in particular, the invasive Aedes aegypti, presents a massive public health risk. Oxitec, Parry explained, modifies male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (which unlike females do not bite humans) with two genes: a “self-limiting” gene which kills every offspring of a modified mosquito, and a marker gene so that Oxitec mosquitoes can be identified with a special light filter. World-class mosquito control programs using traditional methods (e.g., pesticide spraying and habitat policing) can cut mosquito populations by 30 to 50 percent, but Oxitec’s method of releasing modified mosquitoes can crash a population by around 90 percent, Parry said. Oxitec’s approach also presents minimal environmental and health risks, because the mosquito “is self-limiting, it doesn’t leave anything in the environment.” Oxitec’s approach does not persist more than a few days without the continued release of modified mosquitoes, Parry continued, and because these mosquitoes generally do not fly more than about 200 yards, the effect is geographically limited. “The challenge, of course, is regulation and public acceptance,” said Parry, but “in Brazil [the epicenter of the Zika epidemic], we [now] have the regulatory authority to release anywhere in the country.” He further noted that the Dutch government recently declared that the Oxitec approach has “negligible risks” to the environment, even under strict EU standards. Compared to approaches that rely on heavy use of pesticides, Parry suggested, Oxitec’s method should be viewed as a boon for the environment and public health instead of as a threat.
Jay Cormier, FDA regulatory attorney at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, concluded the panel with a historical examination of how law and policy interact with genetic engineering and biotechnology more generally. “The regulatory framework that governs these technologies began much… earlier than these technologies,” said Cormier, and dates from New Deal-era laws in which Congress set out “general guidelines of how they want the government to act, and then they leave it to the regulators to figure out the details.” This model results in overlapping regulations, explained Cormier, which should provide consumers with an extra level of comfort but often creates headaches for biotechnology companies. In 1986, Cormier continued, the Reagan administration set out the current Coordinated Framework, a least-burdensome, risk-based approach in which the government regulates “products, not the process that is used to create those products.” In terms of the genetically engineered products mentioned by the previous speakers, Cormier said, this approach makes sense, because “at the end of the day, the mosquito doesn’t know if it was created using CRISPR or using recombinant DNA technology. The orange grove doesn’t know the difference. And frankly, your body as a consumer of those oranges doesn’t know the difference either.” The development process “informs the regulatory decision,” but it does not determine whether a specific product will be approved.
New genetic engineering technologies have the potential to vastly improve the human condition. In fact, as this panel highlighted, many are already doing so. Unscientific fearmongering and knee-jerk opposition to genetic engineering research not only fly in the face of reason and experience; they create real harms by depriving people of food, health, and a safe environment. Open communication and transparent regulation are crucial to advancing the private and public sectors’ common aim: Saving and improving lives through genetic engineering.