BIO: ‘Genetically engineered microbes could transform agriculture’

dirt and soil

“Just one handful of healthy soil contains more microbes than people on the planet,” writes Beth Ellikidis, BIO’s Vice President of Agriculture and Environment, in RealClearScience.

These little-known microbes found just below our feet provide the foundational building blocks for plant life as we know it through their ability to enhance nutrient uptake in soil. And biotechnology is trying to help those microbes work better in the form of genetically engineered (GE) microbes.

As Ellikidis explains in her op-ed, GE microbes offer huge potential when it comes to combating climate change and future food insecurity. However, outdated regulatory barriers in the U.S. threaten to obstruct progress.

“GE microbes are a promising and crucial tool for improving plant health and agricultural efficacy and solving the most significant issue of our generation: climate change,” Ellikidis continues. “GE microbe products of the future may bolster insect resistance, drought tolerance, and heat tolerance among key crops. This is especially important now that climate change induces more extreme weather events.”

Additionally, the incorporation of GE microbes can mitigate a number of agricultural factors that are exacerbating climate change issues, such as the use of synthetic fertilizers.

“When farmland is more fertile, and crop health is more robust, we can diversify our portfolio of agricultural practices so as not to be overly reliant on synthetic fertilizers,” she explains. “While still a valuable tool, over reliance on fertilizers can cause weed growth and algal blooms, which lead to oxygen depletion in surface waters.”

Why we need to address regulatory hurdles to agricultural biotech

However, with new innovation comes new regulatory challenges. Current U.S. regulations “require biotechnology companies to outline the identification of GE microbes clearly and comprehensively before these products can be put into the field. Unfortunately, it is impossible to test these identifications without first permitting field trials, creating a ‘chicken or the egg’ problem,” says Ellikidis.

For the sake of global competitiveness and food security, it is in the U.S.’s best interest to act, says BIO.

“Recently, Brazil became one of the first nations to approve the export of several products that contain microbial biotech-derived food ingredients such as yeast and alkaline protease,” Ellikidis points out. “The U.S. cannot ignore this opportunity to be a leader in climate, agriculture, and trade and create a market for this emerging industry.”

“To fully reap the rewards of climate mitigation and capitalize on an emerging industry, we need a clear regulatory framework and pathway to commercialization for GE microbes,” Ellikidis writes. “A potential path exists, in theory, under current regulation, but there is no clear pathway to commercialization.”

She calls upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a “science-based process to determine which microbial products can be released for field tests and further research.”

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