The regulatory bottleneck for biotech specialty crops

Speciality crops. Image from Colorado State University.

We often hear that there are only two genetically engineered traits on the market – Roundup Ready and Bt. And, for the most part, that’s correct. There are a few other commercialized traits, such as virus resistant papaya and squash, but why aren’t there more? We see all sorts of papers about awesome genetically engineered traits, from nemotode resistance to nutritional enhancement to really specialized traits like nicotine free tobacco and allergen free peanuts. There are so many traits that we even started a list at Biofortified in an attempt to keep track of them all.

These traits have been developed and tested for efficacy, often with public funding, but haven’t make it to the commercialization stage. All that’s needed is a little breeding to get these traits ready for market. Why don’t we see them in the grocery store? UC Davis researchers Kent Bradford and Jamie Miller have collected a huge amount of data on genetically engineered traits and presented it in their recent paper The regulatory bottleneck for biotech specialty crops. It’s a short but insightful piece. Don’t forget to check out the supplementary material that has lists of all the different traits they found described in the literature.

Here’s the first two paragraphs to whet your appetite:

Specialty crops, which include fruits, vegetables, nuts, turf and ornamental crops, are important components of human diets and provide environmental amenities. In 2007, such crops represented ~40% of the $140 billion in total agricultural receipts, despite being cultivated on just 4% of the total cropped area. Although tomato was the first genetically modified (GM) food crop to be commercialized in 1994, the only GM specialty crop traits currently marketed are virus-resistant papaya and squash, insect-resistant sweet corn and violet carnations. All of these received initial regulatory approval over 10 years ago. As a group, GM specialty crops have garnered limited market share (the exception is GM papaya resistant to papaya ringspot virus, which now produces 90% of Hawaii’s crop). In contrast, GM field crops, such as soybean, maize, cotton and canola, have come to dominate the markets in countries where they have been released. What is responsible for this disparity in the commercialization of GM field crops versus specialty crops?

One possibility is that the dearth of GM specialty crops indicates a lack of current research or of beneficial traits for crop improvement through genetic engineering. Alternatively, research may have continued but progression through the regulatory process to the marketplace may have failed. Anticipated lack of market acceptance could have stopped either research or regulatory submissions. To find out why specialty crops with GM traits have fared so poorly, we have analyzed the research, regulatory and market pipeline to determine which steps in the process may be responsible for the limited range of commercially available products.

The researchers conclude that the primary barrier to genetically engineered specialty crops is steep regulatory costs. These costs can be met by companies producing traits for commodity seeds because there’s a lot of commodity seeds to be sold. This isn’t the case for speciality crops. Additionally, they argue that it doesn’t make sense to require regulation for traits that have been produced with genetic engineering that could be produced with other methods because there isn’t any evidence of harm coming from the genetic engineering process itself.

ResearchBlogging.orgMiller JK, & Bradford KJ (2010). The regulatory bottleneck for biotech specialty crops. Nature biotechnology, 28 (10), 1012-4 PMID: 20944582

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