According to a new study published today in the October issue of BioScience, “Far-reaching Deleterious Impacts of Regulations on Research and Environmental Studies of Recombinant DNA-modified Perennial Biofuel Crops in the United States,” researchers argue that the current regulatory system will need a monumental overhaul in order for cellulosic bioenergy to reach its true potential. The authors write that cellulosic biofuels are hampered by a “deep and thorny regulatory thicket” that has made it near impossible to use advanced gene modification methods to advance cellulosic biofuels production.
“It’s extraordinary that gene modification technology, which has been adapted more rapidly than any other technology in the history of agriculture, and had some profound environmental and economic benefits, has been regulated virtually out of existence for perennial cellulosic biofuels crops,” said Steve Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University, and lead author of the paper.
In the paper, the authors note that exotic plant species pose a serious risk of spread and ecosystem impacts, yet face significantly less stringent regulation or obstacles than genetically engineered crops, which are carefully designed to solve problems, not cause them. As a result, the authors write, many research projects have had to stay away from gene modification methods and this has slowed down the entry of cellulosic biofuels to market. In addition, researchers who pursue gene trait modification are open to regulation nightmares and legal albatrosses.
The authors cite several traits that could be improved with gene modification including enhanced stress tolerance, reduced costs of conversion to liquid fuels, reduced use of water and fertilizer in cultivation, avoiding dispersal into the environment, and synthesis of new, renewable products such as industrial enzymes.
The authors conclude that the end result of a gene modification project should be regulated based on whether it is safe and beneficial, not the process used to produce it.
“It is essential that we create an intelligent regulatory system that does not indiscriminately penalize the gene modification process and obstruct essential field research,” Strauss said. “The one-size-fits-all style system of today treats the process of genetic modification as inherently dangerous, although many high-level science panels have concluded that the process is at least as safe as conventional breeding methods.”
Ultimately, the scientists concluded that solving these problems will require new ways of thinking, strong scientific and political leadership, and regulatory system that awards safe and beneficial new plants that could help solve the globe’s energy and environmental issues.