Genetically engineered food animals could provide a sustainable means to feed a fast-growing world population, yet regulatory hurdles keep such animals off the market, according to an award-winning scientist who recently spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The world can ill afford the delay, said Alison Van Eenennaam, professor of animal science and a cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Davis.
"The world's food demands in the rather near future won't allow us to waste time," she said.
Van Eenennaam, 2014 award winner of the Borlaug Council for Agricultural Science and Technology Communication Award, is known not only for her work with biotechnology, but also for her ability to help others understand complex animal biotechnology and genomics.
She delivered the Heuermann Lecture on Tuesday for UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Named in honor of donors Keith and Norma Heuermann of Phillips, the public lecture series highlights issues relating to food security and natural resources.
According to the United Nations, more than 25,000 people die of hunger every day around the world, Van Eenennaam said.
Genetic engineering, which could significantly boost food production, faces tough scrutiny though it has not harmed anyone, she said.
For centuries, breeders have used conventional methods to produce animals with desired traits, by selecting and mating males and females to produce offspring that are taller, heavier or more fertile, for example.
Genetic engineering uses more targeted and powerful methods to introduce desirable traits into animals, Van Eenennaam said.
Although animal scientists have been using genetic engineering techniques for many years, to date only four pharmaceutical or industrial applications have been approved by federal authorities.
No multinational corporations are currently working to produce genetically engineered animals, she said. It is too difficult and costly to navigate the regulatory hurdles.
It costs $130 million to bring a genetically engineered crop to market, Van Eenennaam said. Meanwhile, a Canadian company has spent more than $60 million since 1989 in an attempt to obtain regulatory approval to grow salmon that are genetically engineered to be larger.
With other countries now developing genetically engineered cattle for food purposes, Van Eenennam said she is concerned about American agriculture if the U.S. is unable to do the same.
Van Eenennam called for consistent regulation across products based on risk levels – not based on how they are made.
New technologies do need to be regulated for safety, she said. But "in a world facing burgeoning demands on agriculture from population growth, economic growth, and climate change, overregulation is an indulgence that global food security can ill afford."