20 Years of Innovation: Reflecting on Successes and Challenges of Biotech Crops
By Craig Richard
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.
The author is the executive director for plant biotechnology at CropLife International
Craig Richard is the executive director for plant biotechnology at CropLife International.