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Senators launch bills to enhance national security through ag biotech

Biotech’s contribution to food security as a national security issue is recognized under a package of bills introduced May 23 by Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Alex Padilla (D-CA).

The Senators say they want these bills to be included as part of the five-year Farm Bill, which was approved by the House Agriculture Committee the week before and must be approved by the full House and Senate before it can be signed and enacted.

Sens. Padilla and Young belong to the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology (NSCEB), a body consisting of experts and lawmakers that was established by Congress to investigate the nexus of biotech and national security and provide the federal government with recommendations.

The legislation they introduced has been described in the NSCEB’s interim report, issued in December.

‘“BIO salutes these efforts to enhance and examine the intersection of emerging biotechnology and national security and help to determine mechanisms to streamline regulatory processes,” says Beth Ellikidis, VP for Agriculture and Environment at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). 

BIO’s Agriculture and Environment Center of Excellence parallels the work of the Commission as it seeks to align policy and processes across the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency to increase reliability, decrease uncertainty, and prevent redundancy. “American leadership in biotechnology for agriculture helps us improve our economy, our climate management, and our ability to defend ourselves and global stability. The work of BIO and The Commission is a clear example of supporting that leadership,” says Ellikidis. 

The legislation

The Agriculture and National Security Act, introduced by Sen. Padilla, “recognizes the importance of identifying and mitigating threats to food and agriculture, particularly with regard to emerging technologies, by instructing the USDA to identify and resolve any gaps or limitations related to food and agriculture in existing Federal national security efforts,” according to the NSCEB interim report. The bill would establish a Senior Advisor for National Security in the USDA Office of the Secretary, “to work in partnership with the USDA Office of Homeland Security to elevate these issues, interact with national security agencies, and advise the Secretary of Agriculture.”

The Agricultural Biotechnology Coordination Act, also introduced by Sen. Padilla, would establish a USDA Office of Biotechnology Policy “responsible for coordinating agricultural biotechnology activities within USDA and across the U.S. Government and would serve as a point of contact for biotechnology developers, academics, agricultural producers, and other entities that may be affected by biotechnology policies at the state, Federal, or international level,” according to the NSCEB interim report

The Biotechnology Oversight Coordination Act, introduced by Sen. Young, would streamline the federal government’s regulation of biotechnology. The bill would require the Office of Science and Technology Policy to coordinate biotechnology oversight and establish a coordination committee across federal agencies. The committee would be instructed “to develop a unified process for regulation of biotechnology products that could have occurred naturally or with conventional breeding,” according to the NSCEB interim report.

The Synthetic Biology Advancement Act, also introduced by Sen. Young, would accelerate innovation in food and agriculture by establishing a National Synthetic Biology Center. Synthetic biology is a research field encompassing different techniques and approaches, aimed at (re)creating fully functional biological systems already found in nature, as an I am BIO podcast explains. Also known as synbio, it can be applied in many areas, such as biofuels, bio-products, renewable chemicals, bio-based specialty chemicals (pharmaceutical intermediates, fine chemicals, food ingredients), and the health care sector.