By Jason Zhang
Food security is always a key concern for governments around the world, and the incessant global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020 drew the public’s attention to this issue. Genetically modified (GM) or biotech crops, the most rapidly adopted crop technology in recent times, play a key relevant role. According to the latest report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the global area of biotech crops has increased around 112-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 190.4 million hectares in 2019. An accumulated 2.7 billion hectares were achieved in 24 years of biotech crop commercialization. Biotech crops contributed to increasing global crop productivity by 822 million tons in 1996-2018, saving 231 million hectares of land. By the end of 2019, a total of 71 countries (EU 26 counted as one) have issued regulatory approvals for GM or biotech crops for consumption as human food, animal feed, as well as for commercial cultivation.
In 2020, there were 43 approvals for GM crops worldwide, involving 33 varieties from 12 countries, and eight of them are new GM crop varieties (see Table 1 for details), including corn (three varieties), rape (two varieties), wheat (one variety), soybean (one variety) and potato (one variety). The total number of approvals and varieties has kept declining in recent years. However, compared to 2019, 2020 witnessed relatively stable progress. In this report, AgroPages will present a brief review of global GMO developments in 2020 in two aspects, which are the commercialization of global GM crops amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and the commercialization of GM staple food crops.
The commercialization of global GM crops amidst the COVID-19 pandemic
Although affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the commercialization of GM crops has maintained relatively stable progress globally, and some countries/regions have even accelerated the process, given their concerns to food security.
Due to the pandemic, some developing countries, such as Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, have re-adjusted their approval schedules, while others failed to deliver approved GM seeds to farmers in time. In an interview, Dr. Murenga Mwimali, a Kenyan plant breed expert, said, “There were planned national performance trials in six sites in Kenya. However, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, the activities of all stakeholders were all stopped.” Similar situations also occurred in Ghana and Burkina Faso, where their governments suspended the approval of pest-resistant cowpea because of the pandemic. In Nigeria, even though the commercialization of Bt cotton and insect-resistant cowpea was approved in 2019 and seed breeding continues to this day, the circulation process was slowed down by the pandemic, and many farmers could not get seeds in time.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the commercialization of GM crops in these countries, it also brought about some positive consequences to this industry. The pandemic highlighted the fact that every country needs to produce seeds and other agricultural inputs locally, which is likely to encourage the public to accept biotechnology that can help farmers improve their productivity. Professor Walter Alhassan, Former Director-General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of Ghana, stressed, “COVID-19 will make us look inward and generate appropriate biotechnologies for our needs.”
The situation in some South American countries was contrary to Africa, where the approval process was slow. In May, Interim President Jeanine Añez of Bolivia issued a Supreme Decree authorizing the National Biosafety Committee to speed up the evaluation of GM events of five crops, namely corn, sugarcane, cotton, wheat and soybeans. The decree was made to provide farmers with advanced biotechnology, to ensure sustainable food production and achieve food security, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Australia and New Zealand, although the revision of relevant food laws and regulations was delayed due to the pandemic, both countries still vigorously sought to expand the range of GM foods acceptable in the region. In 2020, the Food Standards Agency of Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) finally approved BASF’s latest GM soybean variety, GMB151, Monsanto’s latest GM corn variety, MON87429, and J.R. Simplot’s latest GM potato variety, Innate® Invigorate Snowden. These three products are new GM varieties approved for the first time globally in 2020. (See table 1 for their specific traits)
In the United States (US), the government published a new policy in the Federal Register in May 2020 stating that some GM plants will be exempted from government supervision, and requiring the automatic approval of variations of established GM crops, to simplify their access to the market. The new process based on this rule is expected to reduce regulatory costs and schedules related to the development of new plant varieties.
The commercialization of genetically modified staple food crops
On 7th October, 2020, Argentina’s Ministry of Agriculture announced its approval of Bioceres Crop Solutions’s GM wheat, “event: HB4”, for consumption as human food, processing, and commercial cultivation. Argentina is Latin America’s largest wheat producer and the world’s first country to adopt HB4 drought tolerance technology for this crop. According to Bioceres, the HB4 trait can increase wheat yields by 20%, on average. This trait is also the only drought-resistant technology used on wheat and soybean around the world. Although HB4 wheat has been approved in Argentina, its commercialization is contingent upon import approval by Brazil and other countries. Argentina exported 11.3 million tons of wheat in 2019, of which more than 45% went to Brazil.
Wheat and rice are the second and third leading cereals planted and consumed around the world, respectively. However, it has been difficult to commercialize the GM varieties of these two staple food crops, as GM wheat and GM rice are not welcomed by most markets. Under such a context, research and development costs cannot be recovered. Therefore, Monsanto stopped the development of herbicide-resistant GM wheat in 2004, but this variety of wheat was found later in Oregon and Washington in the US and Alberta in Canada, leading to the temporary suspension of wheat imports from these regions by Japan and South Korea.
In the mid-1990s, AgroEvo, now a part of Bayer, developed a glufosinate-tolerant GM rice variety, Liberty Link (LL601), which was approved by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration, but its commercialization was finally suspended in 2001. In 2006, LL601 was detected in rice exported to Europe, which significantly damaged the American rice export market. Consequently, Bayer was forced to pay US$750 million in compensation to American rice growers in 2011, as part of a full and final settlement.
The promotion process of GM golden rice needs to be specially presented. In 1992, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss Government and the EU, Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer successfully created a GM rice variety containing carotene after more than seven years of development. However, according to data in the ISAAA database, although the latest generation of golden rice, “event: GR2E,” developed by the International Rice Research Institute has been approved by regulatory authorities in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines for consumption as human food, animal feed and for processing, its production has not been currently approved by any country. Bangladesh was regarded as potentially the first country to grow golden rice, but due to the influence of COVID-19 pandemic, this process was postponed.
On the whole, major biotechnology companies are currently attaching more importance to commercial crops used as animal feed, fiber and for processing, because such GM crops can greatly benefit farmers, consumers and the environment while enjoying a high degree of acceptance by consumers. Widely consumed food crops, especially rice and wheat, were and are still difficult to commercialize for various reasons. However, with the emergence of products, such as HB4 GM wheat and a new generation of golden rice, there will be more opportunities to commercialize GM staple food crops.
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This article was initially published in AgroPages ‘Annual Review 2020’ magazine. Download it to read more articles.