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Consumers will give approval to genetically altered livestock

Farmers have long insisted they should have a say in legislative matters affecting them.

They want a place at the table, so legislation and policies created by urban bureaucracies don’t ignore their concerns and efforts – namely, their effort to produce safe, affordable, nutritious food, in a society that wants an ever-growing say in how they do it.

You might expect farmers to be represented on such matters by politicians. To an extent, they are. But because the rural population is small, so are the number of politicians from representing rural areas, including farmers.

That’s where advocacy and lobby groups come in with their specialized knowledge of agriculture.

Often, it’s the agriculture arm of the federal or provincial government that farm groups are trying to inform. In legislative halls, that’s where an understanding of agricultural issues is needed the most. In theory, other government branches, departments and ministries reach out to the agriculture department for intelligence, before starting down a legislative road that will affect farmers.   

But a fascinating wrestling match is underway in the U.S. right now in which the federal agriculture department is battling another group, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), over who will give oversight to genetically engineered plants and livestock. It’s an internal fight with a very public angle.

Some 30 years ago, when researchers first started developing genetically engineered livestock, it was the FDA that was tasked with watching over them. It’s a delicate matter, and being involved in drug administration, the FDA is used to hot potatoes. Compared to altering a plant, changing animals’ genetic make-up strikes a much more dissonant chord with many people. They don’t really understand it, which leads to suspicion. So the FDA takes it slow.

But agriculture sector critics such as the US National Pork Producers Council say the FDA has been way too slow reviewing new technology. It points to the fact that just two genetically modified animals have been approved in the U.S. – a salmon (2015) and a pig (2020).

The council says the FDA’s sluggishness is holding agriculture back, particularly as new precision technologies come on stream that offer more exacting ways to alter genes. Pork producers would rather have the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in control.

After all, the USDA oversees genetically engineered plants, which have become a staple in fields throughout North America. It knows gene technology.

The USDA is ready and willing to do the job. The former administration started the wheels in motion for the switch at the time of the last election. But the FDA doesn’t want to surrender this power, and is pushing back mightily…so much so, that the government sought public input on the matter recently. All this, as the U.S. government is contemplating a new way – a modernized approach, some call it – to regulate genetically modified animals intended for food use.

Given the influence of US agriculture on the rest of the world, and the sometimes poor reaction to it by trading partners such as Europe (which takes a very conservative approach to genetically modified food) the results will be felt widely.

How does the public feel about all this? In a 60-day review period that ended last month, more than 43,000 chimed in with comments. That spirited participation prompted another 60-day review period announced earlier this month.

At a recent beef producers’ meeting, the guest speaker told attendees consumers are looking for descriptive adjectives to describe their food – homegrown, farm-raised, additive-free, that kind of thing.

Is genetically modified the kind of adjective they’re looking for? 

I don’t think so. Precision technology is a benefit to producers, but history has taught agriculture that consumers support benefits that accrue to them.

Regardless of who wins a battle to control oversight of these benefits and traits, the industry must turn quickly to consumers with clear explanations.

That’s where the real approval will be found.

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