Why Biotech crops are the fastest adopted crop technology in the world

01Jun 2016
Daniel Semberya
The Guardian
Why Biotech crops are the fastest adopted crop technology in the world

The global hectarage of biotech crops has increased 100-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 179.7 million hectares in 2015 by up to 17 to 18 million farmers – this makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries, Dr Florens Turuka (First right, cuts a ribbon to launch the Global Report on the Status of the Commercialisation of Biotech Crops from 1996 to 2015.

This impressive adoption rate speaks for itself, in terms of its sustainability, resilience and the significant benefits it delivers to both small and large farmers as well as consumers.

Speaking during the launching of the Global Report on the Status of the Commercialisation of Biotech Crops from 1996 to 2015, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries, Dr Florens Turuka said that Modern Biotechnology is a good tool, which if is properly used would bring great benefits to the nation.

“There is a lot of misinformation about the technology. I urge you researchers and scientists to send education awareness on the technology so that the public and other players can understand it and its benefits to them,” he urged.

Dr Turuka said further noted that Tanzania is a party to the Convention on Biological diversity. It is also a party to the Cartagena Protocol to the Convention of Bio-safety. Tanzania also signed the Nagoya Kuala Lumper Supplementary Protocol on liability and Compensation.

Following that the government put in place the National Biotechnology Policy (2010), Environment Management Act of 2004 (EMA).

EMA requires projects for the introduction on GMOs to undergo Environmental Impact assessment (EIA) and risk assessment prior to its introduction GMOs into the environment.

It also requires any person who develops, handles, uses, imports or export GMOs and their products to ensure that such GMOs do not harm, cause injury or loss to the environment and human health

“We, in the government we are putting conducive environment to enable as to start better utilising the technology. The regulations and policy have been put in place to ensure that the usage of the technology adhere to the requirements,” he explained.

He further noted”If the rest of the world is utilising the technology, and it is enormously benefitting from it, why not us.”
According to the newly launched report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) the adoption of biotech crops, “20th Anniversary of the Global Commercialisation of Biotech Crops (1996-2015) and Biotech Crop Highlights in 2015,”, this 100-fold increase in just 20 years makes biotechnology the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times, reflecting farmer satisfaction with biotech crops.

In general, the status of biotech crops in 2015 was variable with several countries, led by Brazil with increasing hectarage, others led by the US with decreasing hectarage, and the balance of countries registering no or negligible year-to-year change, which was relatively low in 2015.

Progress with adoption of biotech crops during the first 20 years
Following a remarkable run of 19 years of consecutive yearly growth from 1996 to 2014, the annual global hectarage of biotech crops peaked at 181.5 million in 2014, (see graph on cover page) compared with 179.7 million hectares in 2015; this change is equivalent to a net marginal year-to-year change of minus 1 percdent between 2014 and 2015.

Annual fluctuations in biotech crop hectarage (both increases and decreases) are influenced by several factors. In 2015, a principal factor leading to decreased biotech hectarage in some countries was decreased total crop plantings; for example, for maize it was minus 4 percent and for cotton minus 5 percent, driven by low prices, with some farmers switching from maize, cotton and canola to a more easily managed crop such as biotech soybean, and also to other less demanding crops like pulses, sunflower, and sorghum. Year-to-year biotech crop hectarage decreases, driven by low prices in 2015, are likely to reverse when crop prices revert to higher levels in the future.

Status in Africa
Despite some significant challenges, the African continent continued to make general progress on several fronts. A devastating drought in South Africa resulted in the country decreasing its intended biotech crop hectarage in 2015 by approximately 700,000 hectares from 3 million hectares to 2.3 million hectares – a massive 23% decrease.

This underscores yet again the critical nature, and potentially life-threatening importance of drought in Africa and the impending new drought challenges exacerbated by climate change. Importantly, the drought tolerant maize (DroughtGard®) under the WEMA project has been approved for general release in South Africa, while the (DT) maize with insect control (Bt) will be launched as scheduled in 2017.

Sudan increased Bt cotton hectarage by 30% to 120,000 hectares whilst political transition changes and fiber quality precluded a potentially higher hectarage than ~0.4 million hectares in Burkina Faso. An additional eight countries (Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Swaziland and Uganda) conducted field trials on priority African crops, the penultimate step prior to approval.

The on-going trials focus on traits of high relevance to challenges facing Africa, including drought, nitrogen use efficiency, salt tolerance, nutritional enhancement, as well as resistance to tropical pests and diseases. Slow implementation of science-based and cost/time-effective regulatory systems is the major constraint to adoption.

Responsible, rigorous but not onerous regulation is urgently needed to suit the needs of both public and private sector technology developers in ensuring smooth delivery of the much needed tool into the hands of African famers. Ultimately, sustained political goodwill and intense engagement with all sector players will be keys in unlocking the regulatory stalemate.

Major developments in the US in 2015
Overall, significant progress was made on many fronts in the US in 2015 ranging from: new approvals; new commercialized biotech crops: first time approval of a GM animal food product for human consumption; widespread use of breakthrough new and powerful genome editing technology, named CRISPR; and some success on labeling.

For GM crop products, Innate™ generation 1, an improved multi-trait potato, developed by Simplot, was first commercialized on 160 hectares in 2015; an improved version, Innate™ 2 was approved in 2015, and has added resistance to the fungal disease, potato late blight, the cause of the Irish famine of 1845, when 1 million people died of hunger.

Remarkably, it is still the most important disease of potatoes 150 years after the famine, with annual global losses of US$7.5 billion. Another global first was the commercialization of the first non-transgenic genome-edited crop, SU Canola™, developed by Cibus and grown on 4,000 hectares.

Two varieties of Arctic® apples, with less bruising and less browning when sliced were approved for planting in the USA and Canada, with 6 hectares planted in the USA alone in 2015. The first delivery to consumers is planned for next year.

The company that developed Arctic® apple, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, from Canada, is applying the same technology to other perishable fruits including peaches, pears and cherries. Okanagan Specialty Fruits was acquired by Intrexon, a US-based synthetic biology company, in 2015.

A low lignin alfalfa event, KK179 (HarvXtra™) with higher digestibility and yield (alfalfa is #1 forage crop in the world) was already approved in November 2014 and is a candidate for commercialization in the US in 2016. Hectarage of biotech DroughtGard™ tolerant maize, first planted in the US in 2013, soared more than 15-fold from 50,000 hectares in 2013 to 275,000 hectares in 2014 and 810,000 hectares in 2015 reflecting high farmer acceptance.

In December 2015, Dow and DuPont agreed to merge to form DowDuPont, with a view to splitting the new company into three companies focusing on Agriculture, Materials and Specialty Products.

For GM animals, after 20 years of review, in a landmark decision in November 2015, the FDA approved the first GM animal for commercial food production and human consumption – a faster growing GM salmon, which is expected to enter the food chain in the US before 2018; Atlantic salmon normally takes three years to harvest in fish farms, compared with only 18 months, or half the time, for GM salmon.

The GM AquAdvantage salmon was developed by AquaBounty Technologies, which was acquired by the US Company Intrexon in 2015. FDA approved a new GM chicken whose eggs will be used to treat a rare but fatal human disease called lysosomal acid lipase deficiency.

Last year, Tanzania reviewed its law on genetically modified organisms, paving the way for scientists in the country to carry out confined trials on crops such as maize and cassava, and effectively turning the tables on anti-GMO lobby groups.

The strict liability clause in the Environment Management Biosafety Regulations has been replaced with the fault-based liability, meaning that anyone claiming compensation for damage would have to prove that whoever introduced the GMOs was at fault.“... Scientists can now carry out confined field trials of biotech crops without fear.

The strict liability clause meant that scientists, donors or partners funding the research were to be held accountable in the event of any damage that might occur during or after research on GMO crops, a scenario that saw scientists restrict themselves to contained trials.

The new clause allows scientists to carry out confined field trials of GM crops to ascertain their effects on humans and the environment, and whether the GM crops could be commercialised.