Putting a price on plant biotechnology

NEW RESEARCH STUDY REVEALS COSTS OF GETTING A BIOTECH CROP FROM THE LAB TO THE FIELD

biotechnology is a growing business. Millions of farmers plant genetically enhanced crops every year and the quantity and complexity of available traits has grown tremendously over the past two decades. But before you can read about new varieties in your seed guide, significant financial and time investments must be made. According to a new study led by CropLife International, an average of $136 million and over 13 years of research is required to discover, develop and authorize a new biotech trait.

“Many crop companies and associations often make claims that plant biotechnology is an expensive business with lengthy development processes,” says Dr. Stephen Yarrow, CropLife Canada’s vice president of plant biotechnology. “This research study provides context and creditability and puts some actual numbers behind those statements.”

innovative research
From initial discovery and experimental trials to analyzing results and meeting strict regulatory requirements, trait development in the plant biotech sector is no simple task. With the goal of quantifying total expenditures and duration involved in this process, Phillips McDougall prepared a research study in partnership with CropLife International using data from six large biotech companies – BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto and Syngenta AG.

Data from canola, corn, cotton and soybean traits introduced between 2008 and 2012 that have received cultivation approval in two countries and import approval from at least five countries were included in the study.

how it all adds up
Each company responded to survey questions about their financial investments in six areas of the research and development process. These six stages can be divided into three categories: discovery, development and regulatory testing and registration. On average, trait discovery costs $31 million or 23 percent of the total mean expenditure. The development stages, including production, selection and testing, accounts for the greatest portion at over half of the total cost or $69.9 million. The cost of regulatory testing and product registration was estimated to be $35.1 million or 26 percent of the overall mean cost of $136 million.

From early discovery to the first commercial sale, the average number of years of development for a new biotech trait was estimated to be 13.1 years. The duration required for canola was 11.7 years and the equivalent findings for corn, cotton and soybean traits were 12 years, 12.7 years and 16.3 years respectively.

The third topic included in the study is the number of units, or candidate genes, constructs or genetic events, processed in order to develop and commercialize one new trait. On average 6,204 units are screened in the development process. Naturally the large majority of these units are evaluated in the early and late discovery activity stages and significantly less are processed in the later stages of research.

communicating key findings
Yarrow believes that conducting cost research in the seed industry is important in proving that biotechnology is a serious business. “Critics of biotechnology often question product research or claim that some biotech products should not be available on the market, but we now know how many millions of dollars and how many years of research are invested in product development and these figures can be communicated,” he says.  “Advancing plant biotechnology is something that the agriculture industry takes very seriously and whether we’re educating critics, farmers or the general public, this data will be useful.”

looking to the future
Research efforts in all stages of the development process are expected to continue to grow in the near future. This growth is driven by the demand for new biotechnology derived traits in canola, corn, cotton and soybeans and the environmental challenges and global population growth that are exerting pressure on production efficiencies. “Farmers are always looking for choice in products that will increase their profitability and environmental sustainability, so the development of new seeds and traits is essential to the Canadian economy remaining competitive,” says Yarrow.

New developments to be commercialized in the next few years include traits with increased tolerances to drought and salinity in soils and increased herbicide tolerance and insect resistance as well as crops that express improved nitrogen use efficiencies that may reduce fertilizer dependency. Yarrow notes that improvements in wheat and other cereals and the application of new breeding techniques that will compliment today’s methods are also on the horizon.

While researchers expect regulatory systems in Canada to become more streamlined looking forward, some regulatory risk assessments may become more stringent meaning that variations in anticipated costs and timelines are unknown and will depend on the crops and traits in question. •