Trump administration officials say they are committed to reducing regulatory barriers to agricultural biotechnology as part of a larger strategy to promote the development of a "bioeconomy" based on far-reaching scientific innovations that could revolutionize medicine, nutrition and manufacturing as well as farming. 

Agricultural biotech “should be the leading area for the bioeconomy, almost by definition,” Andrew Olmem, deputy director for the National Economic Council said Monday at an all-day White House "Summit on America's Bioeconomy." “Farmers are really since day one the cutting edge of American technology.” 

Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, noted that the administration issued an executive order in June ordering federal agencies to find ways that they can streamline the regulation of biotech crops and animals to focus the approval process on products that could pose an environmental or health risk.

“By speeding up the approval process for biotechnology, we will reduce the costs to review biotech plants by millions of dollars to bring new products to the markets faster,” said Kratsios, speaking to business leaders and academics who attended the meeting. 

Olmem said the effort to streamline agricultural biotechnology could serve as a model other areas of biotech sectors. 

He did not offer any new proposals or information on how quickly regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency would proceed. Earlier this year, the Agriculture Department proposed an overhaul of its regulatory process for biotech crops. Livestock groups have been particularly frustrated with FDA, which regulates gene-edited animals as animal drugs. 

The White House event was intended to supplement a formal request for public input the Office of Science and Technology Policy issued last month. The “request for information” is intended to identify “notable gaps, vulnerabilities, and areas to promote and protect in the U.S. Bioeconomy that may benefit from Federal government attention.” 

The request includes a series of specific issues OSTP wants input on, including identifying “policy or regulatory opportunities and gaps throughout the continuum of basic science translation, product development and commercialization.” The deadline for comments is Oct. 22. 

The business attendees who attended the meeting included Jim Collins, CEO of Corteva Agribusiness, the biotech and chemical company spun off from the DuPont-Dow merger. 

The panelists who spoke at the event included Jason Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, a small industrial biotech company that has partnered with Bayer to develop a microbial seed treatment that could enable corn, wheat and rice crops to fix their own nitrogen fertilizer in the way that soybeans and other legumes naturally do. 

Kelly warned that there was a “big public trust problem when it comes to GMOs” and that consumers needed reassurance that there was adequate regulation. 

“We need to get ahead of that by establishing enough regulations that people feel that this is being” addressed responsibly, Kelly said. “It is going to be the most powerful technology for the next 50 years.”

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Steve Censky (shown above) touted USDA’s effort to streamline biotech regulations but said using data to expand precision agriculture techniques also will play a key role in making farming more productive and efficient. 

“We know that we’re going to have to sustainably intensify our productivity here in the United States as well as around the world. we’re going to have to increase our productivity, our yields and at the same time reduce agriculture’s footprint on the environment,” Censky said. 

The effort to reform the department’s biotech regulations is to “make sure that we have the right regulatory approach and that we’re not setting high barriers so that we stifle innovation,” Censky said.

But USDA’s efforts to revise its Part 340 regulations for biotech crops illustrate the challenges that the federal government faces in trying to facilitate biotechnology. 

While crop developers don’t think the proposed rule goes far enough, groups representing grain traders, food processors and restaurant chains have warned USDA that the changes could lead to trade disruptions and undermine consumer confidence. Under the plan, bioengineered plants would be exempted from regulation by USDA if the modifications could be produced through traditional breeding techniques

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