Seed World

Plant Breeding Innovation: The Path Ahead

Leaders recognized early on that if plant breeders were going to have access to the latest innovations and methods, they had to take the lessons they learned from the 80s and 90s with GM technology and apply them today.

Due to the regulation and the costs associated with bringing a GM product to market (eight years and an estimated $135 million), public plant breeders have been priced out of the market, and that’s true for smaller developers as well.

Another lesson learned is around policy. Bernice Slutsky, who co-chairs the International Seed Federation’s (ISF) Plant Breeding Innovation Working Group, says that previously, countries set up approval processes for genetic modification.

“Rather, we are asking, ‘when is it justified to include these regulations?’ Most new plant varieties are regulated around the world, meaning they have to be registered,” she explains. “It’s not a question of should they be regulated, or should they not be regulated, but should it be subject to the same special pre-market approvals that were set up for GM.”

But Slutsky cautions this isn’t just about gene editing or another technology. “This is about the seed industry and agriculture’s ability to innovate,” she says. “If we always go back to GM as the dampening point, that is a huge hindrance to the industry.”

ISF leaders have been working to be proactive and to get out in front of the issue.

Identifying Goals and Laying the Groundwork

When ISF first initiated its efforts in this area two years ago, the Plant Breeding Innovation Working Group focused on the question: “What’s the best role for ISF?”

The group identified three areas of focus:

  1. To facilitate policies across countries that don’t impede, but rather foster adoption of new technologies and foster harmonized regulations across countries.
  2. To communicate with ISF members, other parts of the value chain.
  3. To create alliances with stakeholders, public plant breeders and research institutes.

When the working group started, members focused first honed in on policy. “That’s where we felt the core of it was, and we also knew that our policy efforts would take the longest and be the most work,” Slutsky says.

The working group started by hosting private meetings, designed as an information exchange, with leaders in key countries. Slutsky says these were people who often wouldn’t meet to discuss the issue, but they were asked: “What could be done to facilitate consistent science-based policies across countries?” This led to some very good discussions, Slutsky says.

As co-chair of the International Seed Federation’s Plant Breeding Innovation Working Group, Bernice Slutsky says the next year to two years are critical in terms of paving the path ahead.

From there, the Plant Breeding Innovation Working Group developed a concept paper to foster discussion and serve as a road map for national seed associations and ISF members when working with governments and stakeholders. The paper provides a detailed background on plant breeding and the tools and technologies available today.

“Essentially, if you can get to the same product endpoint with traditional plant breeding as with the new technologies, then we believe they should be governed the same as products derived from traditional breeding,” Slutsky summarizes.

The paper, which has been translated to Chinese, Korean and Spanish, with more languages to come, outlines criteria to help governments determine if products should fall within the GM regulatory framework, or out of the GM regulatory framework.

“Our hope is that if governments follow the criteria provided, there will be consistency among countries,” she says.

Meanwhile, the communications subgroup of the Plant Breeding Innovation Working Group has developed a presentation, an infographic and a complete discussion guide on how to talk about the topic.

The working group has worked closely with a number of entities to develop a robust communications package that members can take, make their own and use, explains Jennifer Clowes, ISF communications manager, noting that CropLife International is just one of the organizations the group has worked closely with.

Slutsky adds it’s their hope that national and regional seed associations will take these tools and use them to communicate with their public stakeholders, policymakers and members.

“We recognize that communications is very important for consumer-facing products,” Slutsky says. “We don’t want plant breeders not to use these tools because of consumer preferences so there’s really a shared interest [in communicating].”

The Road Ahead

But the Plant Breeding Innovation Working Group isn’t done. There’s still a lot of road ahead. The communications subgroup will be developing a frequently asked questions document based on the most common questions asked throughout the process.

The primary working group will expand its reach by reaching out to more countries and continue hosting brainstorming discussions to get input and collect feedback.

Additionally, the working group will begin talking about the importance of plant breeding innovation as part of other international meetings. These include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Asia-Pacific economic community.

“These are places where governments are already meeting,” Slutsky says. “We are trying to get on the agendas to talk about the concept paper and discuss the importance of plant breeding innovation. In some cases, we’ll even look to host a side event.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) hosted a meeting on agricultural innovation, while OECD convened in Canada on gene editing, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation held a two-day workshop last June on plant breeding and the use of gene editing.

Now the Plant Breeding Innovation Working Group encourages others to start communicating with their governments and to be proactive and engage in conversations with their partners, downstream stakeholders in the value chain. The communications tools were designed to facilitate outreach to public researchers and engaging government representatives and policymakers, allied partners and the general public.

“It’s important that our conversations don’t just focus on the technology of gene editing,” Slutsky says. “In fact, gene editing wouldn’t be useful at all if we didn’t have the accumulation of knowledge such as genome mapping, marker-assisted selection and many others.

“Rather, this technology allows breeders to use that cumulative knowledge. Gene editing is one tool of many that breeders can use. We are not going to feed the world because of gene editing, but because plant breeders have access to use all the tools available.”

Drive for Consistency

Consistent policies are not only important for seed trade, but also other parts of the value chain, particularly commodities and the grain trade, both of which depend on non-hindering trade.

“We are all familiar with the issues of asynchronous approvals,” Slutsky points out. “From that perspective, we have to work with downstream partners on the end goal, as farmers want an array of technologies available to them — disease- and herbicide-resistant varieties are really just the low-hanging fruit. ”

But farmers need reassurance that they will have a market for their product. “From a grain trade perspective, consistency is the most important,” Slutsky says. “They don’t want inconsistent government policies that hinder their ability to sell their product. The other half of the equation is innovation.”

But consistency isn’t the only criteria important to the seed industry. “The important piece is that the policies put in place shouldn’t be unnecessarily burdensome, and they should foster innovation,” she says.

Adrian Percy, global head of research and development for Bayer, says he favors a harmonized regulatory system. “Of course, it has to be a reasonable regulatory system that encourages innovation and one that allows us to support sustainable agriculture,” he says.

Global Oversight

With so much at stake and the importance of plant breeding innovations to agriculture’s ability to provide the feed, food, fiber, fuel and pharmaceuticals needed in a sustainable way, researchers need access to all the tools in their toolbox.

There have been conversations about the need for a formal governing body at the international level, but to-date there are no formal agreements. There’s the possibility that an international framework could be housed under FAO or OECD, both of which have advantages and disadvantages.

Regardless of if or who, Slutsky says, “We hope to reach an endpoint such that we don’t have policies or processes across governments that impede commodity trade, research collaboration or seed movement.”

The next year-to-two are going to be pivotal, says Michael Keller, ISF secretary general. “Governments are actively discussing this topic, and it’s been in the press a great deal,” he says. “We need to stay ahead of the curve.

“Our focus is clearly plant breeding innovation. It’s the No. 1 priority for the entire industry, not just those who work with corn and soybeans. It affects everyone.”