The system for assessing new GM crops with nutritional and environmental benefits must be improved to reduce the time and expense of gaining approvals and enable smaller players to get a look in, according to one leading academic.
This did not mean taking shortcuts on safety, merely modifying the process such that it took into account learnings from the extensive safety work already conducted on GM crops to avoid duplicating efforts, argued Dr Roger N. Beachy, who was speaking at a hearing held by the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture last week.
As things stood, the cost ($5-25m) of gaining regulatory approvals for new biotech crops was such that only huge corporations could afford to participate, said Beachy, who is president emeritus at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and founding director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.
Meanwhile, many applicants had to wait up to a decade before getting the green light as they navigated through an “ill-defined and/or unpredictable, sometimes irrational, and always costly” process,” said Beachy.
No new products from universities for a decade
He added: “Researchers in universities and small companies have, since the mid-1980s made discoveries that are relevant to the less lucrative vegetable seed market [compared with the commodity crops big biotech firms focus on], and in cutting edge areas that have potential to revolutionize the biofuels and biomaterials industry.
“Yet, there have been no new products released to the market from universities for more than 10 years, in part because of the time and cost necessary to bring the new product forward.”
Regulators needed to “discipline themselves to focus on what they need to know to ensure safety”, suggested Beachy, while the “characteristics of the products that would trigger regulation and a relevant mechanism to trigger regulatory oversight should be redefined".
Legal decisions 'not based on science'
Meanwhile, ”legal decisions not based on science” were also thwarting progress, claimed Charles Conner, chief executive of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives in Washington, DC.
After “extensive environmental, health and human safety reviews” USDA (the US Department of Agriculture) had determined that sugarbeet and alfalfa Roundup Ready products were safe for commercialization, said Conner.
However, these crops were subsequently (although ultimately unsuccessfully) challenged in court on “procedural” National Environmental Policy Act issues, he said.
Although both crops were ultimately planted, the time and money expended to “litigate these needless legal challenges has been debilitating to USDA’s efforts to review and approve new products”, claimed Connor.
Added Beachy: “This is an exciting period of time in discovery and innovation. Unfortunately, it is not an exciting time for delivering new products of agriculture biotechnology to consumers or to those who would invest in the future of agriculture.”
The next generation of genetically engineered crops would play a key role in enabling farmers to meet growing demand for food and feed, while at the same time using less water, energy and fewer pesticides and herbicides, he said.
Click here to read the testimonies of witnesses to the subcommittee.