GM crops research pipeline going dry

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M.R. Subramani

Chennai, Aug 21

THE bio-technology industry says it has turned its focus on drought-resistant and health providing genetically modified (GM) crops. But world-wide data shows that the pipeline of GM crops research is drying up.

In the US, which is the global leader insofar as GM crop research is concerned, not a single petition has been filed for field trials this year. And statistics available from other nations show that the number decline in field trials of GM crops began in 2003.

According to a presentation by Dr Greg Jaffe, Director, Centre for Science in Public Interest, at a recent biotechnology conference in the US, 75 per cent of the GM crops that are in the trials state would be completing the process of getting approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Again, only three companies - Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta - have been actively carrying out trials in the area of GM organisms.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, there has been a slide since 1995 when 15 petitions were filed. The lowest number of applications - five - were filed in 2002 and things improved marginally during 2003 and 2004.

In Canada, confined research field trials of GM crops have declined from 178 in 2000 to 64 in 2004. In the EU, environmental release of GM crops has slid from 264 in 1997 to 68 in 2004. In both these places, there was a rise in activity during 2003.

According to Dr Jaffe, there were only 15 consultations for GM crops between 2000 and 2004 in the US.

"GM crop trials have basically been curtailed to cotton, corn, soyabean and canola. And these have been for only herbicide and insect resistance," he says.

One reason for the loss of interest in carrying out research in GM crops could be the length of time taken to review the petitions by the authorities, especially in the US.

During 1995-99, the FDA took six to months to review a petition but between 2000 and 2004 the time taken was 13-14 months.

"For instance, the Roundup Ready got the FDA approval in six months but the Roundup Ready wheat took 26 months," Dr Jaffe says.

In another instance, it took 14 months (filed in April 2004; approved in June 2005) for the US authorities to approve alfalfa, a cattle fodder. At the same time, a glyphosate-tolerant corn got approval in roughly eight months (filed in January 2000; approved in September 2000). Incidentally, alfalfa is the only crop that has been approved by the US authorities this year.

According to agriculture experts, the firms intending to bring out new GM crops are concerned about the time taken to get approval for a new strain and the high costs involved in it.

"Maybe, a change in the regulatory system can lead to renewed interest in research of GM crops. Also, a review is needed to cut costs since funding for research is limited," an expert said.

However, at the laboratory level, work is on in a few fields with at least two research works related to India. One is rice rich in folic acid to rectify malnutrition problems and the other is a groundnut variety that is immune to the tobacco streak virus.

Among the others are apples, bananas and wheat. DuPont is developing a glyphosate resistant crop. Monsanto is developing apples that have in-built resistance against codling moth. There are at least seven varieties of GM corn in the pipeline, including ones that nutritionally enhances, three varieties of corn and two strains of soyabean.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 22, 2005)
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