Seed World

Plant Biotechnology: Innovation Lost


We often hear opponents of biotechnology say that biotech crops have not lived up to expectations. For those of us in agriculture, we know that over the last two decades biotech crops have delivered some significant benefits to Canadian farmers and farmers around the world. They have helped farmers adopt improved weed and insect control systems, which have in turn helped make agriculture more environmentally sustainable.

But has this technology fully lived up to its potential? A global study from the European Commission in 2008 based on the research pipeline at that time predicted that 91 new traits would be commercialized by 2015. The reality is that in 2014 only 16 new traits — 20 per cent of that forecast — had made it to market.

A deeper look into why this is shows that the already imposing regulatory and registration timelines, and costs around the world, have increased by 50 per cent over the last decade. While technology developers are becoming more efficient, the result is simply more products being held up in the regulatory bottleneck — or organizations opting not to innovate in this space at all due to these costs.

The increased cost and time associated with bringing a new product to market has stifled innovation in small private sector organizations and public institutions. This has left innovation in plant biotechnology mostly within large, multinational organizations that can shoulder the required burden.

The challenges we face globally in terms of a growing population, changing climate conditions and shifting consumer preferences demand continued innovation in agriculture by organizations of all sizes in both the public and private sectors. If we are going to successfully feed the world through 2050, we will need to do a better job of getting new crops into the hands of farmers.

Canada has one of the most respected regulatory frameworks around the world when it comes to products of plant biotechnology. It has served Canadian farmers and consumers well, but after more than two decades it is time for even the Canadian system to modernize.

Canada has the opportunity to establish predictable, timely and efficient regulatory systems for products of plant biotechnology that could be a model for the rest of the world. In an era of globalization, it is critically important that regulators around the world improve cooperation around the regulation of biotech crops to enable innovation.

Over the past 10 years, biotech crops have delivered some significant benefits through improved environmental sustainability, lower food costs, greater choice for consumers, and greater economic activity — and that’s with only a fraction of the crops in the pipeline making it to market. Imagine the benefits we could see over the next decade if we unleash the potential of this sector through globally coordinated, risk-based regulation? Fortunately, Canada is well positioned to lead the way.