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Biotech’s ‘Next Generation’ already here

But issues still pose barrier to market.

November 12, 2007  By Ralph Pearce

36aHow does the scientific community react to the vast potential biotechnology
holds, both for agriculture and society, while trying to win over a consuming
public that still views these developments with a healthy dose of skepticism
and reluctance?

That is the challenge facing seed companies, breeders and researchers, even
now as new developments in the biotech and trait enhancement field continue
to be released. Recent announcements of new lines of soybeans with drought tolerance
and low fatty acid profiles are indicators that the 'next generation' of biotechnology
applications has arrived. But its vast potential is still facing a long road
to overall acceptance.

As it has demonstrated in recent years, the scientific community can produce
these new varieties with specific traits but whether the developers can recoup
their investment remains a big question. Glyphosate resistant soybeans and Bt
corn are two of the better-known biotech events, and have provided savings to
the grower and reduced pesticide use to benefit the environment. And the developers
have benefitted from increased usage, but too often the benefits are attributed
only to the grower: 'It helps farmers' pocketbooks' is the oft-heard chorus.


The challenge to the 'next generation' will be to turn the promotion of 'benefits
to humanity' into reality, and Dr. Gordon Surgeoner acknowledges that fact while
welcoming the developments in this all important Phase II. Since the late 1990s,
Surgeoner, president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies in Guelph, has been promoting
the 'five phases of biotechnology'. Phase I saw the development of herbicide
and pest resistance. Phase II would concentrate on external or abiotic influences
such as drought or cold tolerances. Phase III would see enhanced oils, cancer
fighting properties and proteins in foods. Phase IV would bring industrial products
like biodegradable plastics and fibres, and Phase V would herald a new era for
energy development, specifically from alcohol. It can be argued that advancements
have come, in one form or another, from all five phases in the past three or
four years.

According to Surgeoner, the regulatory aspect of biotech developments is becoming
a larger factor in bringing these plant varieties to market. "It is a bigger
issue all the time, and it tends to slow things down," says Surgeoner,
adding that such safeguards are necessary and desirable, however expensive.
"It's just that the more you ask, the higher the cost and that continues
to restrict the crops."

Developing history an important step
The really good news in this whole scenario is the history that has developed.
One of the bigger complaints against biotech has always been that the science
has no history; even if Bt corn is proved safe for today, the worry is what
might happen with long-term use. As Surgeoner points out, Bt corn and glyphosate
resistant soybeans are approaching a decade of use without incident, without
any visible impact on human health. So it stands to reason that in the future,
science can apply the long-term data on something as widely used as Bt corn
and apply it to a crop like cabbage, which requires large amounts of pesticides.

"The acreages for cabbage don't justify the kind of regulatory expense
that would be necessary to retrieve your investment, so we'll have to move to
minor use applications," explains Surgeoner. "We've done the preliminary
work, we see no differences on the soil, and we don't need the same concentrated
data sets that we would on the initial application on a large major crop."

It is a long, complex process, he adds, but the regulatory and societal questions
must be tackled as new developments come out of the laboratories and field plots.
Before cold or drought tolerance in soybeans can be successfully marketed beyond
farmers' fields, science and agriculture must first answer society's question
of 'What's in it for me?' Although there are plenty of applications from Phases
II to V that will answer that question in bold terms, there is a hurdle of 'inhumanity
and arrogance' over which some in society are stumbling. Surgeoner refers to
the recent furor over Roundup Ready wheat as an example of this hurdle. That
farmers in North America are rejecting it, primarily because it has been rejected
by customers in Europe actually may hurt them in the short and long-term.

At present, the rejection of Roundup Ready wheat means a producer wanting to
cut costs on feed wheat will not have that choice, and Surgeoner is critical
of that. "You're denying me choice on something that is fully recognized
by government to be safe, and I understand your market concerns and issues,
but at the end of the day, I wanted mine for low cost feed and you've denied
me a method of lowering the cost of production for that use."

Longer-term, he cautions, there is a loss of technology and opportunity. The
same technology that yielded glyphosate resistant wheat will provide the answer
to fusarium head blight resistance, and to hold up approval of one will likely
jeopardize the other, contends Surgeoner. "Fusarium can be very bad for
human health and very bad for animal health, and you're going to deny a methodology
in seed for that. You can't have your cake and eat it, too."

Science still searching for answers
While Surgeoner spends much of his time searching for answers to the societal
questions, Dr. Istvan Rajcan continues the search for scientific methods of
developing new traits for the grower and subsequent markets. In the past five
years, Rajcan has been working on enhanced isoflavone levels, and fatty acid
profiles among other projects. But as a soybean breeder at the University of
Guelph, he cautions the danger of placing too much emphasis on such 'silver
bullet' solutions. Drought tolerance is no doubt an important aspect to have
as weather extremes become more pronounced. However, as 2004's growing season
progressed, drought was not a widespread problem in Ontario's soybean growing

The same is true with any abiotic trait development, says Rajcan. Any one aspect
that may be a problem in a given year needs to be examined and researched in
a proactive manner, not as a reaction. "Weather phenomena and weather anomalies
are going to be on the increase and they may not all include drought, they may
include too much rain or too cool conditions in some years," says Rajcan.
"What I would rather advocate is that we do more thorough and longer-term
testing of our varieties. If you test them at opposite extremes and the variety
still does well, it means it has a good gene package which can deal with everything."

The longer-term process also allows for research that relies on studying natural
variation in traits before introducing genes into a plant. Large-scale companies
like Monsanto and Syngenta have the infrastructure and size for genetic manipulation,
and Rajcan is not critical of that ability. However, the fact remains that glyphosate
resistant soybeans were brought to market at less than 100 percent yield index.
That speaks highly of the desire to have the technology despite a yield drag,
but it underscores a lack of understanding of the short-term impacts of genetic

The introduction of one gene – which expresses one protein – affects
the rest of the plant's operation. "How that protein is going to interact
with all the other proteins, we don't know. Where that gene is going to be inserted,
we often don't know," explains Rajcan. "If you stick the gene within
a coding region of another gene, you may be disrupting something that's already
good in the plant, so it could go with a penalty of some sort. Additionally,
the novel protein that is produced could itself interact with other biochemical
pathways in the plant or other symbiotic organisms."

Instead, Rajcan favours natural selection, relying on the vast variation that
exists in many a plant species, an approach that is also economically viable.
He also uses the Germplasm Collection Centre developed by the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and the USDA, which has more than 20,000 plant
introductions. Of those, it has determined that no more than 20 soybean varieties
make up 85 to 90 percent of the parentage of most varieties in North America.
"That tells me that there is a really wide, untapped source in the germplasm
collection that we haven't utilized," says Rajcan, who can go online to
the database and enter the traits he wants in a variety. "It can throw
back at you 100 lines that have resistance, then it's a matter of making a more
refined choice and acquiring the seed to start making crosses with."

He acknowledges his method may take more time but he argues that overall, it
may be more efficient and may require less expensive resources. And the opportunities
are there for everyone to address some segment of the market. Drought tolerance
on its own is but one trait that growers can choose. A 'total package' variety
that Rajcan can develop would simply be another tool in the grower's toolbox. 


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