In the 22nd year of commercialization of GM crops in 2017, 24 countries grew 189.8 million hectares of GM crops – an increase of 4.7 million hectares (11.6 million acres) from 185.1 million hectares in 2016. Except for the 2015 adoption, this forms the 21st series of increases every single year. In 2018, there were 87 GMO approvals all over the world, which cover 70 varieties, nine of which are new crop varieties (Table 1) being safflower (two varieties), potato (one variety), soybean (three varieties), cotton (two varieties) and canola (one variety), respectively. Compared with the previous two years, the total number of approvals declined, but the number of varieties involved increased slightly. In this report, AgroPages will provide a brief interpretation of the global GMO development in 2018 in the following three aspects: 1) African GMO market; 2) development of new traits; and 3) global regulatory strategies for gene editing.
Emerging African Market
Although many parts of the African continent are vulnerable to drought and civil war, which have led to famine or near famine, many African countries still refused to research and breed GM crops until the end of 2017. Only four countries approved the growing of GM crops – Burkina Faso, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa — of which South Africa is the only country that allows GM foods, while the other three countries only allow GM cotton.
However, since 2018, African countries are increasingly accepting GM crops. In 2018, there were 15 approvals for GM crops in Africa (Table 1), accounting for about 1/6th of global approvals, compared with only three approvals in total in 2016 and 2017.
For expanding export markets, improving domestic living conditions and addressing food security issues with changing climates, some African countries are seeking solutions based on GM crops. Throughout the year 2018, African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia have made breakthroughs in the development of GM crops.
Ghana has completed field trials on pest-resistant Bt cowpea, which will soon become the first GM crop sold in Ghana (cowpeas are a common food in Africa and consumed by nearly 200 million Africans)
Nigeria has completed the commercialization of its first GM crop, and the approved pest-resistant cotton will serve as an important means of revitalizing its textile industry and promoting economic development. In addition, Nigeria approved the import of nine GM crop varieties (corn and soybean) for food and feeding use in 2018 (Table 1)
Ethiopia has approved the planting of genetically modified Bt cotton, the first GM crop in Ethiopia. In the meanwhile, Ethiopia has also approved controlled field trials of GM drought-tolerant and pest-resistant corn
The Kenyan government is revitalizing its textile and apparel industry by promoting the cultivation of GM cotton and has established a national task team for the commercialization of GM cotton in the next five years. Although Kenya issued an import ban on GM foods in 2012, its GMO research and promotion have developed rapidly over the past two years. In 2017, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) of Kenya approved field trials of GM bananas. According to the Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) under the US Department of Agriculture, the NBA approved 13 GM varieties (including cotton and corn) at the end of 2017, which are expected to be gradually commercialized from 2018 to 2021
Rwanda has drafted a GMO-related bill to promote the legalization of GM crops. The head of Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) Research Department said, “Rwanda is studying the ability to improve GMO technology so that it can be fully utilized in the future”
Uganda finally passed its National Biosafety Act. The Act was first passed in 2017, then suspended because of amendments proposed by opponents, and finally became effective as the Ugandan president vetoed the opponents' proposal. The Act will legalize Ugandan farmers and plant breeders to obtain GMOs and other genetic engineering tools
Besides, some other African countries, such as Malawi and Zimbabwe, are approaching the cultivation of GM crops. Generally speaking, Africa is continuing to promote the commercialization of GM crops. As active research and field trials continue to advance, there will be more GM crops on the African market in the future, especially those that play a role in food security, such as bananas, cassava and cowpeas. Governments have also shown greater political will and are allocating more budgets, which represent their strong acceptance of GMO technology.
Development of New Traits
Since the birth of GMO technology, pest-resistance and resistance to herbicides have become the mainstream of trait development. However, the quasi-gene varieties approved by countries in recent years reveal that other transgenic traits are joining the family, such as the bruising-resistant, browning-resistant and low acrylamide traits of potatoes, the browning-resistant trait of apples, the modified oleic acid / fatty acid trait of soybeans, the reduced-lignin trait of alfalfa and the high amylose trait of corn. So in 2018 and in the next few years, what were and will be the changes in the development of new traits?
In our opinion, the development of new traits in the future will focus on addressing issues such as climate change, new pests and insects and meeting the higher living needs of human beings.
Due to exceptional hot and dry conditions, the loss of arable crops in parts of Germany reached as high as 50% in the summer of 2018. As more extreme weather will occur in the future (according to the World Meteorological Organization, the global temperatures will rise by 4°C by the end of the century), it is crucial for agriculture to adapt to climate change. In recent years, breeders have been vigorously exploring how to breed more drought-tolerant and / or heat-resistant crop varieties. Researchers at the University of California are exploring genes that contribute to drought tolerance of sorghum, which may be applied to other important cereal crops such as corn, wheat, rice, and barley in the next few years. Australian plant breeders have procured large amounts of genetic materials from tropical countries such as India, Mexico and Pakistan in recent years. In 2016 and 2017, Australian breeders studied 4,200 heat-tolerant varieties from around the world to explore their heat-resistant genes, which will facilitate the development of new heat-resistant crops. Concretely, there are MON87460-based drought-tolerant corn varieties, the drought-tolerant sugarcane variety developed by Persero and drought-tolerant soybean variety developed by Verdeca. In terms of heat resistance traits, no related transgenic varieties have been reported.
Pest control has always been the focus of research and development of enterprises and institutions, while another trait development direction is to meet the higher living needs of human beings. In recent years, there have been many GM crops developed for health benefits, such as vitamin A-enhanced “golden rice” and GM rice that can reduce arsenic accumulation, which, however, are not badly needed by consumers in rich countries such as the United States and the European Union. But at the end of 2018, the American Chemical Society announced that scientists had transferred a rabbit gene into a house plant – pothos ivy – endowing it with the power to clean the carcinogenic pollutants benzene and chloroform from indoor air. They are close to a version that also cleans up formaldehyde. The air-cleaning ivy is already approved in Canada, while in the US, the Department of Agriculture is still awaiting results of tests. We believe that driven by perceived benefits to health, consumers will have a higher acceptance of such GM plants and be less influenced by the views that demonize GMOs.
Gene Editing - New GMOs?
Gene editing is undoubtedly one of the hottest topics in the agricultural sector in recent years. The new breeding technique significantly reduces the time frame of breeding due to its high-efficient and accurate genomic reediting. In the meantime, as the product formed by gene editing is free of the exogenous gene, the industry players and many government authorities believe that such a product should not be governed by GMO supervision and regulations. Therefore, it has become possible for small and medium-sized enterprises to participate in trait development. However, with the Court of Justice of the European Union ruling that genetically edited crops were GM crops in July 2018, global regulatory strategies became gradually clear.
The biotechnology sector deems that most mutagenesis or gene editing is virtually identical to spontaneous or radiation-induced mutations (radiation-induced mutation is a standard plant breeding method since the 1950s), but the European Court of Justice does not accept such an expression. It believes that organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs and are, in principle, subject to the obligations laid down by the GMO Directive.
However, in March 28, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a statement clarifying its oversight of plants produced through innovative new breeding techniques, including genome editing. According to the statement, USDA does not regulate plants that have been developed through innovative new breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or not developed using plant pests, but traditional GM crops need to be approved by the USDA and obtain the “de-regulation” qualification before they are commercialized. Therefore, the US deems that a crop is not a GMO if no new genes are transferred, although gene-editing technology is used.
In November 2018, the US and 12 other countries—Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay, Uruguay, Vietnam—jointly presented the International Statement on Agricultural Applications of Precision Biotechnology at the WTO meeting. These 13 countries urged other countries to adopt consistent and reliable measures for gene-edited crops. Although the EU is not mentioned, the Statement is obviously targeting the EU's biotechnology policy.
Except for these countries with relatively clear regulatory strategies, other countries such as China, despite strong support in research and development, still lack a clear regulatory strategy regarding marketization of GM products. AgroPages will keep tracking the regulatory trends all over the world.
This story was initially published in AgroPages 'Annual Review 2018' magazine. Download the PDF version of the magazine to read more stories.