US Representative Nick Smith, a Republican from Michigan who chairs the House research committee and is a senior member of the agriculture committee, has been commended recently for his support of the Plant Pathogen Genome Act of 2001, which would appropriate $30 million for an ag pathogen genomics program in the US Department of Agriculture. GT’s Meredith Salisbury phoned the congressman to find out what this could mean for the agricultural genomics field.
When Senator Domenici first spearheaded funding for the human genome project, he had few supporters. How does your position now compare to his?
SMITH: Relatively and comparatively, we’re probably at the same kind of early stage with plant genomics. I am pushing not only for an expansion of the effort within NSF but also within USDA and agriculture research. The effort has not been given the kind of priority that probably is necessary in terms of the potential contribution that it has to offer.
With the new computer technology for high-speed computing, such as the Blue Gene computer that’s expected to be finished in five years, the potential for characterizing those genes is going to be so dramatic. What we produce is only going to be limited by the creativity of our scientists and the availability of funds to carry out that research.
What’s so important about HR 2508, the Plant Pathogen Genome Act? What will it do?
SMITH: Despite the new terrorism threat, the potential for developing genetically modified products that can do a better job of reducing pathogens in food and feed products is important. In light of the new terrorist threat, it’s probably vital. I met with Tommy Thompson three weeks ago [regarding] his concern over the possible contamination of food products: we now inspect only one percent of the food products coming into this country. So the effort to continue aggressively [pushing] for research to reduce pathogens is important.
Part of it is hopefully to expand our effort to make everybody more aware of the positive benefits that biotechnology has to offer — that’s one sort of byproduct of the effort. And simply to have the kind of products that can reduce pathogens that may be residual in the soil or may actually be in the contamination of food products.
Perhaps one of the reasons ag genomics tends not to get the attention is the public’s negative reaction to GMOs. How will the government avoid the bad rap and still get involved in this project?
SMITH: [In the past, there’s been a] concentration on developing genetically modified agricultural products that result in more efficient production and may result in a slight reduction to consumers in price. The great potential of more positive research into products that can contribute more to the benefit of consumers in terms of health, in terms of vaccines and nutrients incorporated in food products, in terms of developing the kind of food products that can grow in arid soils — that’s a much more positive aspect of the GMO potential than simply increasing the efficiency of production.
[Leaving] it to seed companies to improve their products rather than having the government do research [is] one mistake that we’ve made. If we want to get the support of Europe and Japan for GMOs, let’s get a product that’s going to have more benefit to the consumers than more productivity and lower price. Let’s do a better job of emphasizing the environmental benefits.
Got any message for the public or private sectors involved in genomics?
SMITH: We need to relax a little bit more in terms of not allowing basic research to be conducted by government. Be a little more flexible in terms of not insisting that it be fundamental, basic research — not ruling it out because it has some aspects of results-oriented, applied research.