- Jeffrey L Fox, Nature Biotechnology 27, 237 - 244 (2009)
The Obama administration looks to be a welcome shot in the arm for the scientific endeavor, but the current economic crisis is likely to keep several issues of key interest to biotech firmly on the back burner.
"With this president, a lot of policies are going to change, and a number of them are likely to be exciting for us," says Willy De Greef, secretary general of EuropaBio (Brussels). He points to USDA Secretary Vilsack as but one example of Obama appointments that look positive for biotech. The new USDA secretary "understands what biotech crops can do and has a deep interest in putting agriculture in play, including for energy independence and biofuels," De Greef says. Although no details are available, he adds, Vilsack's attitudes toward and familiarity with biotech-related agriculture issues "are very good for our sector."
The appointment of Vilsack is "nothing but positive for biotechnology," says Val Giddings, a Washington-based industry consultant and former USDA official. "There's not been an ag [USDA] secretary who comes in so familiar with biotech issues and who doesn't have to be briefed for the first time, but is favorably disposed to biotech for farmers. Plus, he respects data and evidence." As for Energy Secretary Chu, Giddings says, "He can't help but advance the [DOE] biotech portfolio. There will be greater openness, and it's nothing but positive."
"On the food side, I expect biotechnology to be a fairly unimportant issue for the next couple of years," says Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Instead, he and others recognize that conventional safety issues, with the salmonella-laced peanut butter problem the most recent example, will be predominant. One exception directly involving biotech could be a move to reinstate a premarket notification rule for genetically engineered plants, a move that was blocked by Bush but could be brought back by the Obama administration. "There is no reason to think the [Obama] administration would go toward more deregulation, much to my chagrin," he says.
What happens with biofuel development ties in with developments and policies affecting agriculture and, here again, Obama's selection of Tom Vilsack for USDA secretary is drawing praise from biotech analysts. "Agbiotech is regarded as important, but let's have no illusions," says Washington-based consultant Giddings. "The economy and Middle East are first-tier issues, and Vilsack won't get Obama's attention for quite a while. And, even if they [administration officials] could be specific about agbiotech, they wouldn't because they will set it on the shelf and get to it once they deal with other stuff."
In terms of regulatory policies affecting genetically modified crops, little is expected to change anytime soon during the Obama presidency, except perhaps for a greater emphasis on transparency. "It is likely that the Obama administration will be more open than Bush's to a wide range of stakeholders," says Gregory Jaffe, who directs the Biotechnology Project at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. More generally, the new administration is more likely to seek additional regulatory authority or even to ask Congress to amend laws in cases where rule-making becomes too much of a stretch for those already on the books. However, he adds, with so many other pressing food-safety issues to face having to do with microbially or chemically contaminated products, "I don't think biotech foods will be high on Obama's agenda."
"Expect more scrutiny of new varieties and more disclosures and transparency about biotechnology in food and agriculture," agrees Mark Mansour, an attorney with Bryan Cave (Washington, DC, USA). He, too, does not anticipate "much change" from recent policies in the near term, except for "some concessions to watchdog groups. But this will take a while, and will be expressed in due course."
One area where agricultural policy might change course is internationally, particularly with Secretary of State Clinton revitalizing international outreach programs, according to Mansour. This could take shape as an "aggressive engagement of USDA and USAID [Agency for International Development] with developing countries in Africa and other parts of the world, using agriculture as a means of engagement," he says. Unlike the Bush administration, for which such programs were, at best, "an adjunct to security, this [Obama] administration could see agricultural biotechnology as a constructive tool." Of course, "there will be obstacles to overcome, but a lot of opposition to biotechnology could melt with a prolonged recession."
"We're spending about $22 billion per year for the region [Africa], and candidate Obama called for doubling resources, and to put agricultural resources among the top ten," says Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA, USA), and author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa. "Science-based assistance does seem to have a voice." However, biotech will not soon make inroads into African agriculture because so many countries there remain dominated by Europe through custom and because Europe provides them much more assistance than does the United States, he adds. Thus, although USAID "has tried to throw its weight around, that doesn't work in Africa."
"The EU approach has helped keep African countries from adopting GM [genetically modified] crops," agrees De Greef of EuropaBio. "We hope if the EU and US become less adversarial, it could remove pressure from Africa, which feels forced to choose between US or EU regulations."
In terms of global agbiotech disputes, there are "tricky dossiers" to be faced, De Greef says. Even though the US won a round against the EU in a long-standing World Trade Organization (Geneva) case about genetically modified organism imports, "no official appeal" from the EU has been filed yet, he says. "If EU does not appeal or comply, the US, Argentina and Canada can take unilateral measures, but the US probably will prefer to negotiate, which seems more Obama's style. I'd like to see agreements rather than litigation, and a real victory would be to have science-based regulations."