Over the course of two decades, genetically modified (GM) crops have offered many benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment, including the use of fewer pesticides, larger yields and lower food and animal feed costs.
According to Robert Fraley, Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer, GM technology has increased crop yields by “an average of 21 percent worldwide and reduced the use of pesticides by 37 percent.”
Today, 28 countries legally grow GM crops, most commonly corn, soybeans and cotton. For example, in the United States, GM seeds account for 93 percent of corn and 94 percent of soybean production.
While many countries ban or prohibit the cultivation of GM crops due to regulations, trade concerns and public perception, they allow for the import of GM products, i.e. raw materials, animal feed and processed human foods.
Only seven countries have completely banned GM cultivation and imports.
Politics aside, the world is facing very real challenges that may prompt further exploration into the potential of seed biotechnology. By 2050, food production will have to increase by 70 percent to feed a global population of 9.7 billion. To do so will require intensification in crop and animal protein production.
For those working in animal agriculture and its allied industries, the availability, quality and price of feedstuffs is an evergreen concern. Looking to the future, the following innovations will play a large part in securing a sustainable and abundant cereal supply. However, in the short term, GM seed technology must overcome a series of significant obstacles.
Key areas of seed biotech research
Seed biotechnology introduces genetic variations outside of the crop species’ natural traits, allowing the farmer to be more efficient and profitable while leaving a smaller environmental footprint. For animal food producers, the selection of certain traits can reap considerable benefits for their bottom line.
Conducted in the public and private sectors, here are four areas of seed biotechnology innovation that will directly affect the producer’s margins and improve animal health:
1. SUPPLY: Higher yields
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports 90 percent of the growth in crop production will come from “higher yields and increased cropping intensity.” Eighty percent of that growth will come out of developing countries.
We "will have to have more intensification,” says Dr. Tom Clemente, professor with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. “We need more corn or soybean crops that can grow in higher density because we have less arable farm land.”
Genome editing holds a lot of promise in increasing yield potential beyond crop protection.
2. PROXIMITY: Climate adaptability
Research is being conducted in hopes of producing drought- and frost-resistant varieties of row crops as climate change will impact what’s being planted and where.
“That’s going to be the real influence of climate change — can the plant handle extreme conditions at critical times?” Clemente says.
The European Commission’s DROP program is exploring “genetic patterns linked to water efficiency and drought resistance” in corn, wheat and sorghum.
3. SAFETY: Mycotoxin resistance
With weather extremes comes the increased threat of mycotoxins.
According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), mycotoxin contamination causes $1.64 billion in revenue losses annually, but that figure will likely be driven higher with climate shifts.
Researchers are developing fungus-resistant seeds to assist in preserving pre- and post-harvest grain quality.
4. NUTRITION: Nutrient manipulation
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), the nutritional enhancement of GM crops “targets manipulation of levels of proteins and amino acids, fats and oils, vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates and fiber quality, as well as decreasing the levels of undesirable components in major feed crops.”
GM corn, for example, is being developed to include higher levels of methionine and strides are also being made in eliminating anti-nutrients from other feed grains.
Will mega mergers stall innovation?
Over the past year, six of the seven largest seed producers announced merger and acquisition (M&A) plans: ChemChina’s $43 billion bid to takeover Swiss seed and pesticide group Syngenta; German drug and crop chemical maker Bayer’s aim to acquire U.S. seed company Monsanto for $66 billion; and U.S.-based Dow Chemical’s $130 billion merger with DuPont.
“It benefits seed companies to be low-cost producers,” explains Elizabeth Hund, senior vice president and division manager of US Bank’s food industries division. “During a broad downturn in commodity prices, M&As will allow the big seed companies to survive. They’ll be able to reduce costs and become more efficient, which better positions them to deliver margin on their stock.”
Critics argue that the elimination of competition violates anti-trust regulations, threatens food security and may suppress innovation. Hund believes mergers can spark the research and development of new products.
“These companies will continue to try and extract value, and that’s going to be through innovation and differentiation — all the technology that they can cultivate,” Hund says.
In addition, she suspects secondary opportunities may present themselves as new divisions spin off the merged portfolios and the companies explore new sources of revenue generation.
Respective regulatory bodies plan to approve or deny the legitimacy of these transactions in early 2017.
Threats to progress
There are a series of legal, social and economic challenges repressing new seed technologies. Public perception and excessive regulation pose the greatest obstacles to the development of the necessary advances in biotechnology.
The cost of regulation has become “an almost insurmountable challenge” for the development of many new biotech products, says Dr. Wayne Parrott, professor of plant breeding and genomics with the University of Georgia.
“The cost is inversely proportional to the risk involved,” he says. "Spending $30 million on safety tests gives the same level of safety that $2 million to $3 million does."
“Regulation is absolutely stifling innovation,” Parrott notes. “Theoretically, if a country does safety testing by the CODEX Standard, that testing should be accepted around the world, which is the case for every single food except for GMOs where you see many countries wanting to run their own tests.”
Meanwhile, the consumer’s perception of GM foods has been tarnished by activists and misinformation, culminating in the United States’ push for a GM labeling laws.
“You know, I have been in this business my whole career and I have never been pessimistic until this past year,” Parrott says. “The point of no return, I think, is the labeling law. We avoided the labeling issue – the 50-different-labels issue at a national level – but not at the international level.”
Feed, animal protein industries key to biotech’s success
Despite long-term challenges, food industries likely will prevail in shifting the public dialogue out of sheer necessity. In the short term, however, it’s animal feed and food producers who will make the case for safe and cost-effective GM grains and the progression of seed research.
“The amount of [new GM seed varieties] with no hope of seeing daylight is just astonishing. It has nothing to do with the safety of the products; it has everything to do with overregulation,” says Parrott. “It’s the feed sector where this technology has the best chance of succeeding and moving forward.”
References available upon request.