20 Years, Too Late

Robert Hunter
Robert Hunter, Chief Operating Officer, CropLife International
3 min read -

By Robert Hunter, Chief Operating Officer, CropLife International

Skyrocketing food prices, grain blockades, and the ever-increasing impacts of climate change are the challenges of today. So, do we really have 20 years to wait for game-changing technologies to reach our farmers?

As has been the case for centuries, innovation in agricultural is crucial to support global food production and has helped us confront critical moments when our food supply is at risk. For the last 30 years, genetically modified (GM) crops have been one of those innovations that has maintained food stability and continues to deliver tangible benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment.

GM crops allow farmers to be more efficient with their application of crop protection products, which not only reduces their environmental impact, but saves time and money. These crops have been shown to increase productivity, improve nutritional values, and boost drought tolerance. The technology is also changing agriculture’s carbon footprint, helping farmers adopt more sustainable practices such as reduced tillage to reduce emissions and promote carbon sequestration.[1] 

But a recent study contracted by CropLife International found that the current time for a new GM trait to go from R&D to commercialization is 16.5 years. Which, realistically, means that farmers and society will not see the true impact of these technologies for nearly 20 years. The reality of this trend is not good for farmers or for food systems who need new solutions to address big problems.

However, research has shown that there are actions we can take today to help shorten the timeframe. The largest roadblock in products reaching markets is regulatory approval. Between 2012 and 2022, time spent in the regulatory phase of the GM approval process increased by 140 percent.

Let’s look at the EU as an example of these bottlenecks: European law states that approvals for plant biotech traits should take no longer than two years; however, approval decisions routinely take up to six years. By simply adhering to the law, we could instantly shorten the approval process by four years without any additional cost or resources or affecting food safety.

Complex and contradictory regulatory processes also slow down products getting to market. For globally traded commodities, new products need regulatory approvals not just in the country where they are grown, but also in the country where they will be imported. This means that the same GM crops and traits are approved over and over, using the same data, and based on the same standards. And many countries are requiring more studies, not less, despite becoming more familiar with this technology.

There are many ways that governments could work together to reduce the time to get innovative products to market, such as regulatory cooperation and consistent data requirements.

It’s clear that innovation is needed to achieve zero hunger and to improve global food security. We have tools and resources that can ease the burden on the world’s farmers and help them farm sustainably and productively, but they must have access to these tools.

We must learn from our experience with GM crops. These crops have been safely consumed and cultivated for more than 30 years and yet the time to get them into farmers hands is getting longer, not shorter. Let’s work together to streamline our existing regulatory systems and ensure new technologies reach farmers today – not in two decades. Our food security depends on it.

[1] Graham Brookes & Peter Barfoot (2020) Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996–2018: impacts on pesticide use and carbon emissions, GM Crops & Food, 11:4, 215-241, DOI: 10.1080/21645698.2020.1773198