Do regulatory costs hurt farmers?

Canola traits | Companies not willing to invest in new lines that lack big revenue potential

A canola trait that could reduce the need for insecticides may never come to market because seed companies aren’t willing to cover the immense regulatory costs associated with genetically modified technology, say canola industry representatives.

Agriculture Canada researchers in Saskatoon have developed hairy canola plants that repel flea beetles. As noted in an Agriculture Canada publication released this year, “scientists have already field-tested GMO germplasm available for plant breeders to use in developing commercial varieties of hairy canola.”

However, Pat Flaten, research manager with SaskCanola, said this transgenic trait might not be commercialized because crop science companies are primarily interested in blockbuster GM traits.

“The seed industry has said that only ‘transformative’ transgenic approaches will really be considered,” said Flaten, who has heard that it requires $40 to $100 million to commercialize a transgenic trait.

Stephen Yarrow, CropLife Canada vice-president of plant biotechnology, said those estimates are low.

“How much does it cost these days to get a plant with a novel trait or a GM crop through the system?… I’ve heard numbers that are higher than that. Up to $150 million and up to 13 years.”

Agriculture Canada scientists began investigating the potential of hairy canola nearly a decade ago with funding from SaskCanola, Alberta Canola Producers and the Canola Council of Canada.

Nearly every canola seed in Western Canada is now sold with an insecticidal seed treatment to control flea beetles. As reported in an Ag Canada publication, a canola variety with hairs on the leaves and stems could help producers grow canola without these insecticides.

Paul Gregory, a farmer and beekeeper who runs Interlake Forage Seeds in Fisher Branch, Man., introduced a resolution at a Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association meeting in November that called on farm organizations to lobby for hairy canola.

“This trait was developed by public money…. It’s a hairy trait, so it’s chemical free,” he said.

“They (chemical companies) obviously want to sell chemical so it kind of goes against their profit and their bottom line…. I’d like to see some public pressure brought to bear on Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and Monsanto to bring this into (their) programs so we would all benefit.”

Marcus Weidler, who works in business operations, seeds, with Bayer CropScience, said factors that determine if a crop trait enters the market include farmer demand, the time required to commercialize and the cost.

“The cost of (more than) $100 million to bring a new product to market is accurate, of which regulatory costs are a key contributor,” he said in an email.

“For every product that makes it to market, there are many that do not. For instance, a trait such as drought tolerance may result in one successful product and hundreds that are cancelled. We invest heavily in laboratory research, germplasm, specialized research and breeding expertise, growth trials, land and rental contracts, and many other must-have costs.”

This doesn’t mean biotech firms will forgo niche traits and only focus on blockbuster GM traits, Yarrow said, but companies have to see a return on a $100 to $150 million investment.

“It really does have to be a trait that not only provides a benefit for farmers, but a trait that is going to be very popular in the farming community.”

Weidler said Bayer continues to invest heavily in developing traits that “enable the grower to harness the plant’s full potential yield through improved genetics and protection of their crop.”

Still, given the price tag, crop science companies are shying away from GM traits.

“With investments being so high, and timelines in GM so long, non-GM has become a preferred approach for most new traits and technologies,” Weidler said.

SaskCanola vice-chair Franck Groeneweg said hairy canola could provide a long-term solution to flea beetles. Yet, despite challenges with striped flea beetles, canola growers are satisfied with insecticidal seed treatments because they remain effective and easy to use, he added.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” he said.

“But I’m not sure they (growers) realize the possibility we have with this hairy canola. The GM solution is a long-term (solution) and could probably be a whole lot more effective.”

Groeneweg said growers will have to lobby for hairy canola if they really want it.

“If the farmers are saying we need this, then the research is going to get done a whole lot quicker.”

Agriculture Canada scientists are now working on a non-GM version of hairy canola, but Flaten said the research is just underway.

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