Recent Developments in Agricultural Biotechnology

Published on: 15:51PM Apr 10, 2019

On February 11, I posted a blog about USDA finalizing rules for biotech labeling on food products sold in the United States.  However, there have been a lot of other developments in the biotechnology arena in the last several months, both here in the United States and abroad, that are noteworthy as well.


In 2017, there were 469 million acres of biotech crops planted around the world, according to data collected annually by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).  This figure represented a 2.5 percent increase over the previous year.  Fifty three percent of those acres were in developing countries, primarily in the advanced developing economies like Brazil, Argentina, China, and India.  GMO crops are planted on about 12 percent of total cropland globally.


U.S. Developments


Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would not require crops modified through CRSPR/CAS9 ‘gene-editing’ techniques to undergo its full regulatory review process.  In a statement issued on March 28, 2018, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asserted that “with this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present.”   The U.S. Food and Drug Administration followed suit in October 2018 by announcing a new Plant and Animal Biotechnology Innovation Action Plan, under which the first gene-edited commercial field crop, high-oleic soybeans developed by Calyxt, were approved for commercial sale.  In February 2019, the company announced that it would begin marketing a high-oleic soybean oil produced from this crop, which was grown on 34,000 acres under contract in the Midwest last year.


In March 2019, the FDA also announced that it would lift an import restriction that was preventing Aquabounty salmon, a genetically engineered salmon, from being produced in the United States.  This fish was developed to grow more rapidly than conventional salmon, which saves on feeding costs.  Aquabounty salmon was actually approved for commercial production in 2015, but its introduction was slowed by complications with labeling regulations.  This type of salmon is already being commercially produced and marketed in Canada.


At a panel at the 2019 USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum, industry experts warned that the current regulatory approach for approving GMO animals was too cumbersome, and was leading some U.S. companies in the field to consider moving their operations entirely overseas.


International Developments


In March 2019, the government of Japan announced that it would follow the U.S. lead and permit foods produced using gene-edited ingredients could be sold on their market without additional evaluations.  It has been reported in the U.S. press that adopting a more streamlined science-based process for Chinese approvals of the importation of GM crops and products is part of the ongoing negotiations on trade issues between the governments of China and the United States, but no overall deal on all the issues, including protection of intellectual property rights (IPR) has been reached yet.


Vitamin A deficiency, which often leads to blindness, is a significant problem among the malnourished population in Asia.  Research to develop rice varieties with enhanced vitamin A content, which has been dubbed Golden Rice because of the beta carotene that have been introduced through genetic engineering, has been underway for nearly 20 years.  The effort focused on rice because of its importance as a staple crop in Asia.  The first field trials were conducted in 2004 in Louisiana, but subsequent moves to commercialize the crop have long been blocked by anti-GMO activists.  In the Philippines several years ago, field trials of the crop were physically destroyed as a form of protest by such groups.


However, earlier this year, that final obstacle was lifted, as the government of Bangladesh announced that it was approving release of Golden Rice seeds for cultivation later this spring.  While the governments of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have made similar announcements in recent months, the Bangladeshi decision is more consequential because of that country has the highest per capita rice consumption in the world, estimated at more than 350 pounds per year.


A similar breakthrough occurred in Nigeria earlier this year, when the government announced that it had approved a GMO cowpea variety, designed to resist pests.    Cowpea is an important source of protein for millions of Nigerians and others in West Africa.  However, the crop is highly vulnerable to a range of pests, and sometimes requires several applications of pesticides for farmers to be able to harvest a marketable crop.


This decision paves the way for commercialization of this crop, developed by government researchers from Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, and Burkina Faso.  The government of Ghana recently completed its own field trials on this crop and is expected to follow Nigeria’s example soon.  Once these new GMO cowpeas are planted, it would represent the first GMO food crop planted in Sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa--only GMO cotton had been planted in the subcontinent previously.