Despite their benefits, agricultural products from genetically engineered plants and animals are grit in the gears of international trade.

Two Virginia Tech scientists have received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service to promote mutual understanding between the U.S. and China on issues of regulation, communication, and risk management related to genetically modified products, and to foster scientific and regulatory collaboration.

The U.S. has adopted production of genetically engineered crops while China is just now proceeding through the regulatory process.

“There is a lot of misinformation and lack of knowledge about biotechnology regulations,” said Elizabeth Grabau, professor and head of the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Against this background, “Information exchange and coordination among such major trading partners is a must,” said Eric Hallerman, professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

“An informed public, as well as science-based regulation, are necessary for safe, productive genetically modified products,” said Grabau, whose research focuses on biotechnology approaches to crop improvement. In particular, she has worked on developing disease-resistant varieties of peanut and enhanced nutrient availability in soybean.

Grabau, principal investigator, and Hallerman, co-principal investigator, who are both affiliated with Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute, received the grant from the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service. They will seek to expand the skills of leading Chinese researchers engaged in regulatory assessment of new biotechnology products; provide a better understanding of U.S. trade policies, safety requirements, and science-based regulations; establish contacts between Chinese and U.S. research and policy experts; and foster long-term cooperation on international trade.

“I want better communication so these issues don’t disrupt trade,” said Grabau. “Harmonizing regulations with China is one of the Foreign Agriculture Service’s targeted programs.”

“In China, plant genetic engineering is mostly the domain of academic researchers,” said Hallerman. “They are just to the point where they can begin to commercialize. Government officials may be putting up regulatory hurdles to U.S. products to give themselves time to prepare their products.”

Meanwhile, Chinese officials are responding to consumer fears without asking their scientists what the real issues are, and what are non-issues.

“The importance of risk communication is the most critical thing we communicated to the Chinese. Our message is that scientists have a duty to reach the public,” said Hallerman, whose research includes biotechnology risk assessment, management, and communication. He has participated in biotechnology advisory bodies for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, National Research Council, Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Health Organization.

This summer, Hallerman and Grabau hosted Li Yunhe and Wan Yusong of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences for a six-week visit to share the U.S. approach to biotechnology risk assessment, risk management, risk communication, and biotechnology policy.

Li, an associate professor in the Institute of Plant Protection, focuses on risk assessment for genetically modified rice, including drafting approaches and polices for assessing and managing the risk of genetically modified organisms and evaluating the ecological suitability and fitness of Bt rice (which is resistant to insects because it expresses the gene of a natural insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt).

Li’s objectives were to understand the U.S.’s approach and procedures for assessing the risk of genetically modified organisms, learn how to communicate risk assessment results to the public, and understand how the U.S. manages genetically modified plants and their products.

Wan, an associate professor in the Biotechnology Research Institute, researches genetic modification detection technologies, methods, and standardization. His goals were to enhance understanding of the U.S. regulatory approach for agricultural biotechnology products and foster collaboration between U.S. and Chinese institutions.

The Chinese scientists met leading biotech researchers at Virginia Tech and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service as well as regulatory officers at Bayer Crop Sciences, Monsanto, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency to discuss regulatory policies, challenges associated with agricultural biotechnology products, risk assessment protocols, regulatory procedures, and developments in China’s biotechnology regulatory system.

“They heard about what goes well and less well in our system, which was useful for them to hear,” said Hallerman.

In October, Hallerman and Grabau traveled to Beijing and gave talks at two institutes of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. They met with regulatory affairs officers of the U.S. Embassy and of Chinese subsidiaries of leading biotech companies.

“We also visited the countryside and gained a first-hand appreciation of the importance of genetic engineering to agriculture in China,” Hallerman said. “The farms are small. A farmer applies pesticides by walking with a sprayer, then walks through the pesticide and gets exposed. So genetically modified plants that resist pests reduce the farmer’s exposure to pesticides. They also increase income. When you are making very little, that is huge.”

Grabau, who works on transgenic plants, partnered with Hallerman because of his work on transgenic animals.

“Genetically modified animals can also help people,” Hallerman said. “The Chinese have a pig that is resistant to hoof-and-mouth disease and carp that are resistant to a broad range of bacterial diseases. We have salmon that grow faster and a goat whose milk doesn’t spoil, which is important in the developing world where they have goats instead of cows.”

“The issue is getting through the regulatory mill,” he continued. “In terms of genetically modified animals, the world is waiting for the U.S. to make the first move. Our Food and Drug Administration is widely respected in terms of food safety.”

In the meantime, Hallerman said, “When we can tell people, ‘We really do eat this,’ it is significant. We are also trying to influence perception.”

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