2015 was an important year for all sectors of biotechnology. Read on to take a look back at some of last year’s key stories from the world of agricultural biotech.
Genetically engineered salmon
Marking the end of over two decades of regulatory review and the start of a new chapter for innovation in animal biotechnology, the first genetically engineered (GE) animal was approved for commercial marketing and human consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2015. Scientists designed the AquAdvantage® salmon (using a Chinook salmon growth hormone gene and a genetic switch from the ocean pout, an eel-like type of fish) to contain a growth hormone gene that is continuously active, unlike non-GE salmon, whose growth hormone genes are only active for part of the year. This means that the AquAdvantage® salmon takes just 18 to 20 months to grow to market weight, a much shorter time frame than the 28 to 36 months required by conventionally farmed salmon.
The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act
The labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods and products continues to be a source of debate. The latest development in this discussion was the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in the summer of 2015 and is currently under review by the Senate. The bill seeks to establish a federal labeling standard for foods or products containing GM ingredients, thus eliminating state-by-state labeling of GM foods and transferring sole authority for imposing mandatory labeling to the FDA (in the case that GM foods are ever found to be unsafe or otherwise materially different from non-GM foods).
Food labeling isn’t only an issue that concerns lawmakers. Today’s consumers are both more technologically savvy and more interested in finding out additional information about the food and other products that they purchase and consume. To address this, the Grocery Manufacturers Association recently introduced SmartLabel, a smartphone-readable QR code printed on the packaging of branded products that links consumers to extensive and detailed information—far more than could be contained on a product’s regular packaging—about ingredients, nutrition, allergens, GM components, advisories, and brand information. The Hershey Company is the first brand to have adopted the SmartLabel, but nearly 90 others are involved with the program, and consumers should expect to see more SmartLabels hitting grocery store shelves in mid-2016.
China’s improved biotech approval process
US farm groups, biotech companies, industry officials, and politicians patiently awaiting improvements to China’s stalled import approval process for genetically engineered crops finally saw progress at the Strategic Agriculture Innovation Dialogue, a meeting that took place in the fall of 2015 between officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and China’s agriculture ministry. During this meeting, both countries agreed on the importance of implementing a consistent, timely, science-based, and transparent approval process for importing agricultural biotechnology products into China, and both countries made commitments to further improve the system. Interested industry parties applauded the move but still cautioned that streamlining China’s approval process is likely to be a long-term effort.
Avian influenza outbreak
Agriculture as a whole, including the agricultural biotech industry, took a major hit with the 2015 outbreak of avian influenza, or H5, infections. As of mid-June 2015, 21 states had reported detecting the avian flu virus, with 15 states reporting outbreaks in captive birds or domestic poultry, and six states reporting detections only in wild birds. Fortunately, no H5 infections occurred in humans, but in all, nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys were destroyed. To recover from this blow, the industry required over $800 million in aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill
Although the Agriculture Act of 2014 was introduced, naturally enough, in 2014, it wasn’t until 2015 that major parts of the bill were properly implemented. The Farm Bill, as it’s known, seeks to build on the economic gains rural America has made over the last five years while also achieving meaningful reform and saving billions of taxpayer dollars. Included in the bill are everything from the provision of a farm safety net and the development of trade and foreign agriculture to the promotion of conservation activities and renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives. The bill also makes provisions for supporting local and regional food systems and encouraging the development of the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
2015 World Food Prize laureate
A major focus of agricultural biotechnology is increasing our capacity to feed the hungry all around the globe. That goal is shared by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed of Bangladesh, the founder of BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee), which is now the world’s largest non-governmental organization. Sir Fazle was recognized for his pioneering approach that addresses how hunger and poverty are connected and develops solutions by merging scalable development models, scientific innovation, and local participation.