In the eyes of the Trump administration, the new trade deal binding the U.S., Mexico and Canada is a model for future agreements, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Agricultural Biotechnology section of the pact, now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

“This is one of those foundational chapters that we would want to have included in any other free trade negotiations,” said Floyd Gaibler, a director at the U.S. Grains Council. “This is our gold standard for biotech.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership was the first multilateral trade deal to include a biotechnology agreement, but the USMCA goes beyond what’s in the TPP, the 11-country Pacific Rim accord that the U.S. pulled out of last year. While the geographic scope of the TPP is broader, the USMCA language is binding and sets an underpinning that could provide a much more significant boost to the expansion of biotechnology if it is adopted in future trade deals.

It was one of the least controversial chapters of the pact and was agreed on very early by all three countries, likely because the U.S., Canada and Mexico are already closely aligned on biotech policy. The biggest impact may come months or years from now in future negotiations with countries that do not have efficient ways of approving or dealing with genetically altered crops, farming and science organizations say.

“The USMCA sets important new standards for U.S. trade policy by ensuring trading partners establish policies that protect, respect, and advance the hard work and investment needed to bring new biotechnology innovations from the lab to the marketplace,” the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) said in a statement.

The Trump administration is already moving forward in preparation for trade talks with the U.K. and the EU, and if either were to agree to the text laid out in the USMCA, it would be a major win for biotechnology, said Gaibler.

Much of the USMCA text on biotech is dedicated to dealing with instances when a country discovers it has imported genetically modified crops that it has not approved, but were approved by the exporting country. While this isn’t much of a problem in North America, it can create major trade disruptions when the “Low Level Presence (LLP) Occurrence” happens in places like Europe or China.

Floyd Gaibler

Floyd Gaibler, U.S. Grains Council

The EU, Gaibler said, essentially has no LLP policy, and a discovery there of an unapproved trait can take years to resolve and result in massive losses for the exporter.

“If we ever get into negotiations with the U.K. or EU, this would be tough stuff for them,” he said. “Europe doesn’t have an LLP policy and their risk assessment process takes four-and-a-half years. Ours takes 12-15 months.”

The USMCA does not tell a country how it should approve new biotech traits, but it does lay out a path for how to cut down approval time and deal with LLP occurrences in a way that minimizes trade disruptions.

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“Basically, what this is doing is saying: ‘We encourage you to develop a process that is timely … and in the event that you have a situation, here’s the process you can go through to try to ameliorate the problem,'” Gaibler said. “It doesn’t tell (countries) how they have to regulate (biotech), but it’s important that they recognize (new biotech traits) and that they need to be dealt with in a way that will help with policies that allow them to move freely in commerce.”

But the USMCA is forward-looking in more than just a template for dealing with LLP occurrences and improving approval efficiencies. The pact also acknowledges that biotechnology is far more than a type of genetic modification of plants – mostly to provide built-in protection from pesticides and herbicides – that has been evolving for decades.   

Not only does the USMCA recognize all forms of agriculture biotechnology, it also sets a path to recognizing the swift expansion of gene editing and whatever lies beyond under the label of modern biotechnology.

“It’s very significant that the USMCA is taking a very forward-looking approach to ag biotech,” said Matt O’Mara, BIO's vice president of international affairs. “The ag biotech definition is broad enough to capture not only current technology, but also future technologies.”

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