Bioengineered crop area grows, regulatory updates needed

by Ron Sterk
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As area planted to bioengineered crops in the United States and around the world continues to increase, it appears such crops and the food from them are becoming more accepted by consumers. Still, outdated regulations may be holding back even more progress, although concerns about environmental impact and food safety remain.

Proponents see bioengineered crops as a key solution to increasing food production to feed the planet’s growing population and to reduce world hunger in a sustainable manner that reduces costs to producers and uses resources more efficiently.

“Biotechnology crops have improved the ability of producers to meet market demand, both domestic and international, while supporting their rural economies,” Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, told the House Committee on Agriculture’s subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Affairs on June 23. “Production efficiencies gained by utilizing biotechnology crops have resulted in higher yields, more efficient use of cropland, reduced labor and reduced crop rotation requirements,” he said.

“It is imperative that the U.S. agriculture industry continue to lead the way with innovation, product development and acceptance of biotechnology crops,” said Mr. Conner, whose comments also had support from the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, the National Cotton Council, the American Sugar Beet Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

At the same House subcommittee hearing, Roger N. Beachy, president emeritus of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, said the regulatory structure for introducing and producing bioengineered crops was badly outdated and pleaded for regulatory reform that would encourage innovation and lead to better consumer and producer acceptance of such technology. He said current regulations were put in place in 1987, to address concerns and risks perceived in the late 1980s, before bioengineered crops were commercially grown.

“The regulatory process has not adapted to the experience of the past 24 years or to new knowledge generated during this period,” Mr. Beachy said. He estimated the cost of regulatory approval for a product with a new bioengineered trait at $5 million to more than $25 million, with most of the cost related to the regulatory process.

Total costs to develop and bring a bioengineered crop to market may be near $100 million, Bill F. McCutchen, chairman of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, said in the organization’s spring 2011 newsletter. The high cost discourages or locks out many small companies and public institutions from developing bioengineered crops, he indicated.

“Currently, event deregulation of genetically-modified crops in the United States requires food, feed and environmental assessments for regulatory approval that may require consultation of three agencies: E.P.A., F.D.A. and/or U.S.D.A.,” Mr. McCutchen said. “Because event deregulation and regulatory approval commonly require seven or more years, the timeframe for a G.M. crop to enter the marketplace can be as long as 10 to 15 years, which limits the number of companies willing to invest.”

He said such regulatory and cost hurdles has delayed the Golden Rice project from deploying genetically-bio-fortified rice to malnourished, rice-dependent populations for up to a decade.

The first commercial bioengineered crops were planted 15 years ago with global area estimated at 4.25 million acres in six countries, including the United States, in 1996. By 2010 planted area had increased to about 370 million acres in 29 countries, representing about 10% of total global crop land, according to the most recent data from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture first published data for select bioengineered crops in 2000, when about 69 million acres, or 41%, of total corn, soybean and upland cotton area of 169 million acres was planted to bioengineered seed. In its June 30, 2011, Acreage report, the U.S.D.A. said about 164 million acres, or 91%, of the near 181 million total acres of these three crops were comprised of bioengineered seed. The total doesn’t include other bioengineered crops, such as a million-plus acres of sugar beets.

Corn, soybean and upland cotton area of 164 million acres planted to bioengineered seeds equaled about 51% of the total 319 million acres planted to all crops in the United States in 2011, according to the U.S.D.A. data.

The U.S.D.A. estimated 88%, or about 81,208,000 acres, of total corn area of 92,282,000 acres was planted to bioengineered seed in 2011, up from 86%, or 75,845,000 acres, planted in 2010. Total 2011 soybean planted area of 75,208,000 acres included about 70,696,000 acres, or 94%, planted to bioengineered seed, the U.S.D.A. said. The percentage planted to bioengineered soybeans was up from 93% in 2010 but total area was down 1,290,000 acres because total soybean planted area was lower this year. Upland cotton area planted to bioengineered seed in 2011 was about 12,092,000 acres, or 90%, of the total 13,436,000 acres planted, compared with 93% of the total planted to such seed last year, according to the U.S.D.A. data.

Use of bioengineered seed, especially insect resistant varieties, may fluctuate from year to year based on the expected level of target insect infestation, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S.D.A.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S.D.A. randomly selects farmers from all the states included in the corn, soybean and upland cotton estimating program each June when surveying for its Acreage report, asking if they planted bioengineered seed. While growers are not surveyed about plantings of other bioengineered crops, the department previously estimated at least 90% of all sugar beet area was planted to bioengineered seed in 2010. Despite ongoing legal action from environmental and organic grower groups seeking to ban the use of bioengineered sugar beet seed, growers again planted heavily to such seed in 2011. If the 90% level was reached, that would put 2011 plantings of bioengineered sugar beets at about 1,113,750 acres out of the total 1,237,500 acres planted.

Although small in area compared with corn, soybeans and even cotton, bioengineered sugar beets may be called a “poster child” for biotechnology, claiming the fastest adoption in the United States of any bioengineered crop, going from introduction in 2007-08 to comprising an over 90% total U.S. sugar beet acreage in 2010. But it wasn’t without some bumps, in the form of several lawsuits.

The latest apparent legal activity in the various bioengineered sugar beet cases came in late May 2011 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California granted a motion from Monsanto Co. and other intervenors to dismiss remaining appeals on case 10-17335, according to the Sugar Industry Biotech Council. The intervenor group voluntarily had asked the appeal be dismissed, the Biotech Council noted.

“As a result of subsequent court decisions and the U.S.D.A. actions, continuation of the appeals had little consequence for Roundup Ready sugar beet growers of seed companies,” the Sugar Industry Biotech Council said on May 26. “The U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has issued interim measures to allow the planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets and farmers are planting Roundup Ready sugar beet crops.”

Even the major bioengineered crops haven’t been without some controversy. When APHIS deregulated alpha-amylase corn in February, some segments of the corn and food industries objected. The alpha-amylase enzyme breaks down starch to sugar and facilitates a key step in ethanol production, according to APHIS. About 40% of the U.S. corn crop is used in the production of ethanol. Syngenta Seeds, Inc. requested the deregulation of alpha-amylase corn in 2005. APHIS prepared a plant pest risk assessment and an environmental assessment before the deregulation.

But some corn users, especially corn millers, objected because contamination of regular corn with the alpha-amylase enzyme would render production of certain corn products nearly impossible. APHIS said it recognized the issue and encouraged continued industry dialogue between the industry segments concerned and Syngenta.

Recent court decisions have favored the use of bioengineered (Roundup Ready) sugar beets and alfalfa, despite drawn out legal battles that were based on procedural National Environmental Policy Act issues even after being determined safe by the U.S.D.A. In an alfalfa case, the matter was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year backing U.S.D.A. approval.

While the most widely adopted and known bioengineered traits have focused on insect resistance and herbicide tolerance in corn and cotton, herbicide tolerance in soybeans, canola (the “big four” bioengineered crops grown globally) and sugar beets, other bioengineered crops currently on the market include alfalfa, peanuts, sunflowers, potatoes and papayas. Others in some form of development include apples, bananas, lettuce, rice, strawberries, turf grass, salmon, tilapia, trout and flounder, as well as new traits for many of the products already on the market, especially drought resistant crops.

In addition to Syngenta Seeds mentioned earlier, major players in bioengineered crop development include Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont and Monsanto Co., considered the world’s leading agricultural bioengineering company.

Although many feed and food crops now are grown from bioengineered seed, the most obvious crop absent is wheat, which is the third largest grown crop in the United States behind corn and soybeans, and the fourth largest harvested crop when hay is included (hay isn’t planted annually). The potential loss of export markets has kept development of bioengineered wheat seed inactive or on the back burner for many years, at least until recently, and in the eyes of some has been the major contributor to the continual loss of wheat area to crops that have greatly benefited from bioengineered traits, such as corn and soybeans. Since the introduction of bioengineered crops in 1996, U.S. planted area to corn has increased by 16% and to soybeans by 17% while wheat planted area has decreased by 25%.

A major impediment to bioengineered wheat has been European and Asian countries that will not import bioengineered grain, even though some of them grow bioengineered crops themselves and import bioengineered corn, soybeans and other crops. The industry long has feared a situation like that of rice, which was settled just last week after four years. Bayer CropScience agreed to pay up to $750 million to long-grain rice growers who filed suit after several countries banned imports of U.S. rice after traces of unapproved bioengineered rice, being grown on test sites, were discovered in U.S. export shipments in 2006. Related cases involving millers, exporters and others still are proceeding.

Also a concern for the seed industry has been whether they would be able to recoup the large investment needed to develop bioengineered wheat because of farmers’ tendency to “plant from the bin” rather than buy commercial seed.

But it appears the time for bioengineered wheat may be at hand, although not immediate due to the extended time it takes to bring bioengineered seed to the market.

Bioengineering leader Monsanto restarted wheat research in 2009 and has indicated it could begin field testing bioengineered wheat in the next year or two, although it may be 10 years or longer before any wheat may be commercialized. Other companies also have indicated they were developing bioengineered wheat. Monsanto abandoned its work on wheat in 2004 based on opposition from U.S. growers and from importers of U.S. wheat.

“An example of future potential for biotechnology is wheat,” Mr. Conner told the House subcommittee. “According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 20% of the calories consumed by the human race are derived from wheat. In recent years, droughts in Russia and Australia made global supplies uncertain, and this year U.S. farmers in some states are experiencing drought while other states are experiencing flooding. Innovation will be the key to the U.S.’s ability to improve wheat production, keep up with growing global population and adapt to changing climatic conditions around the world.

“Wheat farmers want technologies that will allow them to address multiple production challenges and improve yields and quality while using less water, fertilizer and pesticides.”

Funding for a two-year project for the development and validation of a flexible genotyping platform for wheat using current wheat genome sequencing data is expected to make it easier to do targeted breeding and create new varieties of wheat, according to the U.K.’s University of Bristol.

Rothamsted Research in the U.K. is awaiting government approval for field trials of bioengineered wheat that will resist aphids. The Farmers Weekly reported the wheat field trial, if approved, would be only the third for bioengineered crops in the U.K., with the other two for potatoes, and would require 24-hour security to prevent protestors from destroying the crop. There currently are no bioengineered crops grown in the U.K. If approved, the wheat trial would begin in March 2012.

“The Green Revolution taught us that agricultural biotechnology can provide a set of precise yet flexible tools so that growers can mitigate pests and combat plant diseases,” Jim Greenwood, president and c.e.o. of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), said concerning the June 23 House subcommittee hearing. “In four decades, we’ve seen global food production increase by 150%. Our current challenge is to produce more food, fuel and fiber for a growing population, and to do so in a sustainable fashion.”

BIO represents 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations in more than 30 countries. The 2011 BIO International Convention concluded June 30 in Washington, with attendance of more than 15,000. At the meeting the organization presented legislative proposals intended to address bioengineering innovation and industry growth. The two key areas included were “the need to re-engineer the biotech economic model, and the need to re-invent the idea-to-market pathway for biotech cures and other products,” BIO said.

“The next generation of biotech crops, with resistance to environmental stresses such as drought and frost, and enhanced nutritional content will provide for healthier plants and healthier foods,” said Ab Basu, acting executive vice-president, food and agriculture, for BIO. “And we continue to discover new energy sources with biofuels made from corn, wood, grasses, algae and non-edible parts of plants. These science-based solutions are crucial to meeting the challenge of feeding and fueling a growing world.”

Proponents have said the “second” Green Revolution, which is needed to feed a growing population and to reduce global hunger, will depend on bioengineered crops since only limited “new” crop land is available to bring into production.

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