Public Sector Biotech Crops to Help Small-Scale Farmers Beat Poverty

Public Sector Biotech Crops to Help Small-Scale Farmers Beat Poverty

October 10, 2016
Food Security 

Although the majority of today’s commercialized biotech crops are developed by large private companies, there is an enormous amount of plant biotech research being done by public sector institutions worldwide. Much of this research is focused on local crops in Asia and Africa, which could have a significant impact on food and nutrition security, as well as improve community health and farmer livelihoods. We talked with CropLife International’s John McMurdy, Director of Emerging Markets & Development Partnerships to learn more about public sector research of biotech crops.

What kind of biotech crop research is the public sector engaged in?

Public sector research into biotech crops isn’t a new thing — in fact, the virus-resistant biotech papaya commercialized nearly two decades ago was developed through public sector research. It was this same biotech fruit variety that saved the Hawaiian papaya industry from being wiped out by Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV). Today, public sector research continues to be much higher than most people think ­­­— nearly every country worldwide supports some sort of public sector research, but there are many programs taking place in Asia and Africa focused on improving local staple crops and helping smallholder farmers. In addition, much of public sector research is based on Public-Private Partnerships where private companies are sharing their resources, research, experts, and facilities. The most well-known public sector project is probably Golden Rice, a biotech rice with increased beta-carotene content, but there are many projects involving local staple crops such as brinjal (eggplant), papaya, sorghum, cowpea, cassava, potatoes, and over a dozen vegetables. Much of the work being done on these crops will help maintain and improve crop productivity under extreme weather conditions, increase the nutritional quality of crops, as well as make plants more resilient to insects and disease.

Biotech brinjal (eggplant) was recently approved in Bangladesh — tell us more about farmer reception of the biotech variety and the impact it’s had.  

Biotech brinjal was developed initially in the early 2000’s with focus on India, where it has since had many stops and starts with the government and regulatory agencies. In 2013, Bangladeshi Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury made a bold move when she approved an insect-resistant biotech brinjal variety for limited cultivation by Bangladeshi farmers. Although cultivated hectares of Bt brinjal have been limited by the Bangladeshi government in the first two years of commercialization, all the brinjal farmers reported 100 percent success in preventing target insect infestations and a significant reduction in pesticide applications. The Government of Bangladesh is expected to continue approving additional biotech brinjal varieties and make more seed available to growers in the coming years. With over 150,000 brijnal farmers in Bangladesh, Bt brinjal could eventually be grown on half a million hectares, improving farmer livelihoods, food security in the marketplace, and grower stewardship of the land.

If biotech papaya and brinjal plantings have been so successful, why haven’t we seen more public sector products in the marketplace? 

Similar to biotech products developed by the private sector, public sector biotech crops also undergo rigorous regulatory and safety review and authorization. Unfortunately, biotech regulatory frameworks worldwide have become less efficient and more complex, and the process itself has become costlier for developers, especially in developing countries, where many of these public sector projects are taking place. Unless there is a strong government will to push public sector research on local staple crops forward, like we saw in Bangladesh, many of these products will get stuck in the regulatory process, similar to private sector products — which means significant delays in bringing innovations to those farmers and consumers who could benefit the most in developing countries. Governments need to consider the impact many of these biotech staple crops can have on their citizens’ health, wellness, and livelihoods.