20 Years Of Innovation: Reflecting On Successes And Challenges Of Biotech Crops
Interview with Craig Rickard, executive director for plant biotechnology at CropLife International. This post was originally published by Forbes.com on 25 August 2016.
In 1996, farmers planted the first commercial biotech crop. The global uptake of plant biotechnology by farmers since has made it the fastest-adopted technology in the history of agriculture. Farmers who have the choice to use the technology have chosen it on an unprecedented level because of its benefits.
However, today those farmers are no longer being provided the choice to utilize a broader suite of technologies on more crops in more places from a diverse set of technology providers. The regulatory hurdle is too high and completely disproportional to any risk presented by plant biotechnology. This needs to change if the world’s innovation is to be used by our farming communities for society’s greater good.
In 2008, the European Union’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) undertook a survey of all the research and development of biotech products taking place in both the public and private sectors worldwide. Then, the JRC predicted that 91 new biotech traits would come to market by 2015. These new products would bring advancements to the world’s farmers: protecting a wider set of crops from additional pests and diseases, resiliency against the impact of climate change, or providing additional nutritional value in staple crops throughout the developing world. The report also predicted that many of these new offerings would be developed and provided by public research institutions.
Fast forward to today. We are, unfortunately, very far off from meeting the JRC’s predictions — in 2014, there were only 16 new traits on the market, a mere 17 percent of the 91 expected products. These traits are still largely agronomic, in the major row crops, and provided by the private sector. What happened to the dozens of new traits that should have improved nutrition, food security and crop health?
A 2012 survey of the technology developers that have commercialized traits for farmers found that, on average, it costs $136 million over 13 years to develop a biotech crop and bring it to market. Although developers in both the public and private sector have become much more efficient at creating new traits, the cost and time involved in the regulatory process has increased by at least 50 percent over the last decade — and in many cases, even more — making the road to commercialization much longer. For example, a decade ago in China, it took about 12 months to approve a new biotech trait for import. Now, the process can take six years. Despite decades of safe use of plant biotechnology, the regulatory processes around the world have gotten so long and arduous that they are effectively stalling innovation from reaching farmers and consumers.
Unfortunately, this failure to deliver innovation hurts farmers and those in the developing world the most, where both yields and livelihoods are stagnant. Many humanitarian-focused biotechnology projects around the world have been slowed, if not completely stalled, by excessive regulatory costs; costs shouldered by governments, foundations, and development agencies. This is despite the fact that much of this technology — such as water efficient maize, Golden Rice and biofortified sorghum — would be provided without royalties or additional costs to the farming community.
Efforts by anti-science, non-governmental organizations and technology critics to demonize biotech crops on ideological grounds affect the world’s most vulnerable populations and, quite often, run counter to the organizational missions of these so-called “consumer rights” groups.
Bt brinjal (eggplant) in South Asia is an example of a dual-story — of both opportunities lost and seized. Insect-resistant biotech brinjal was developed by the private sector in India as a technology to combat common pests that can devastate this staple crop. The technology was subsequently licensed to public sector institutions in India and beyond to help make it more widely available to the most marginalized growers in South Asia.
Although the technology can have life-changing effects on the livelihoods of Indian farmers and the health of their communities, the Indian government bowed to a vocal activist community and issued a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010. This is despite the fact that the safety and efficacy of the gene had been studied for the last 10 years, and other plants with this same gene have been grown and eaten around the world since 1998.
In contrast, the government of neighboring Bangladesh, whose public research institution the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) had been adapting the Bt brinjal technology for local agro-ecologies, approved the technology for release in 2013. As a result, a growing number of Bengali farmers are now benefiting from this technology through reduced input costs, improved yields, and increased incomes.
Despite farmer support for biotech crops, regulatory processes have taken an arduous toll on innovation in plant biotechnology over the last decade, reducing biotech seed choice for growers, as well as minimizing the farm-level and economic benefits they enjoy from the technology. Today’s regulatory decisions are increasingly influenced by protectionism, trade manipulation, and ideology, despite the thousands of scientific studies that show that biotech crops are safe. More and more, farmers are barred access to innovative new products that can improve their livelihoods, as well as support global progress on a host of the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as addressing food security and malnutrition.
As evidenced by the JRC report, the opportunity is ripe for exciting new traits, which could deliver tolerance to abiotic stresses, help maintain and increase crop yields despite more challenging growing conditions caused by climate change, and enhance the nutritional content and quality of foods. It is essential that we bring the scientific method back to regulatory decision-making in order to enable these innovations and put them in the hands of farmers.
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of biotech crop plantings, we must look toward the next 20 years and focus efforts on enabling innovation for all technology developers. It is time that the public and private sectors band together to engage with policymakers, educate stakeholders, and promote public-private partnerships that deliver technology to more farmers. We must reignite innovation in the plant science sector and accelerate growth and opportunity for farmers around the world by ensuring access to sustainable crops with improved resiliency and nutrition for those who need it most.