Regulatory changes enacted a decade ago appear to be responsible for dramatically slowing the flow of agricultural biotechnology innovations to a mere trickle, reports a team of agricultural economists and biotechnology experts led by Colorado State University.
Findings from the study, published in the August issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, suggest that the slowdown may have lasting social welfare costs, such as the delay of nutritional improvements, production efficiencies and environmental protections.
"One of the great frustrations in the agricultural biotechnology community has been the failure of many new products with enhanced quality traits — such as nutritional content, ripening control and processing attributes — to reach consumers and processers," said Gregory Graff, assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State.
Graff led the study, working with Alan Bennett, a professor of plant science at University of California-Davis, and David Zilberman, a professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at University of California-Berkeley.
"While biotech innovations with on-farm production traits — such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance — moved through the research-and-development pipeline relatively quickly, commercialization of product-quality innovations failed to materialize," Bennett said. "It had been hoped that these products would directly benefit the general public and change public perception of agricultural biotechnology."
To investigate the cause for the delay in commercializing product-quality innovations, the researchers conducted two surveys, one looking back on the history of 558 product-quality innovations and another looking forward at 49 quality innovations expected to be developed by 2015.
The retrospective study found that many research breakthroughs related to flower color and fruit ripening occurred in the 1980s, when agricultural biotechnology was in its infancy. It was expected that research and development in these areas would have grown during the 1990s as new products entered the market. Instead, innovation in product-quality innovation leveled off around 1998 and then declined.
“The No. 1 cause for the slowdown in research and development appears to be the situation in Europe, where regulators halted all new approvals in 1998. This had enormous implications for other countries that do trade with Europe, including U.S. farmers. A range of premium traits for wheat and potato were in the pipeline and died there,” said Graff. “The European ban on biotech crops was primarily motivated by environmental and safety concerns over pest control traits. Limiting those, however, seems to have killed development of all sorts of more benign traits as well, including entire R&D programs and even some entrepreneurial agbiotech firms.”
The article can be viewed online at http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v27/n8/pdf/nbt0809-702.pdf. The study was funded in part by a grant from the Council for Biotechnology Information.
For more information, contact Gregory Graff at (970) 491-4028 or Gregory.Graff@colostate.edu.