As biotech crops approach the 20th anniversary of their commercialization in the U.S. in 2016, their past gives some indication of their future.  A recent report from the Economic Research Service of USDA, Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States, provides valuable background information.  With biotech crops accounting for half the crop acreage in the U.S., the industry remains research-oriented to address additional concerns of U.S. crop producers. 

The second footnote in the report explains why plant biotechnology continues to be important, “Plant biotechnology in general and genetic engineering in particular have significantly reduced the time needed to develop improved plant varieties, increasing the range and precision of characteristics incorporated into these new varieties.  By allowing scientists to target single plant traits through genetic recombination techniques, plant biotechnology decreases the number of residual unwanted characteristics that often result from traditional plant breeding crosses, enabling breeders to develop desirable new varieties more rapidly.”

The biotech crops industry continues to be regulated by the federal government.  Under the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, federal oversight is shared by USDA, EPA, and FDA, with each bringing its expertise to the regulatory process.  USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) plays a primary role in regulating field testing of agricultural biotechnology products.  EPA regulates a plant as a pesticide if it is engineered to prevent, destroy, repel, or mitigate pests.  FDA regulates all food applications of crops developed through the use of biotechnology to ensure they are safe to eat.

APHIS issues authorizations for biotech plants that are categorized as “regulated articles” under its regulations to allow technology developers to pursue in-field tests.  Plants that meet six specific criteria undergo a streamlined process, known as ‘notification’.  Researchers provide information on the nature of the plant and introduced genes, descriptions of genetic modifications, size of the introduction, and origin and destinations for movement or the location of a field test. For biotech plants that do not meet the criteria for a ‘notification’, an APHIS ‘permit’ is required that involves a more comprehensive review.  Researchers must describe how they will perform the test, including specific measures to reduce the risk of harm to other plants, so the tested traits remain confined and do not persist after completion of the permitted activity.

Field tests releases (notifications and permits) are a good measure of the research interest.  From 1985 through September of 2013, a cumulative 17,000 releases have been granted.  Corn was the leader with 7,800.  Herbicide resistance traits totaled about 6,800 hundred across all crops, with insect resistance totaling another 4,900.  Product quality such as flavor or nutrition accounted for an additional 4,900 releases.  In fiscal year 2012, 767 releases were approves with 9,133 authorized sites and 469,202 constructs (a piece of DNA which functions as the vehicle or vector carrying the target gene into the recipient organism).

After sufficient field tests, APHIS may be petitioned by the trait developer for a determination of nonregulated status in preparation for commercialization of the trait.  If APHIS concludes after a thorough review that the trait is unlikely to pose a plant pest risk, the trait is issued a determination of nonregulated status.  The trait can be moved and planted without APHIS oversight.

According to data the authors retrieved from the Information Systems for Biotechnology, “As of September 2013, APHIS had received 145 petitions for deregulation and had granted 96 (31 were withdrawn, 17 were pending, and 1 was incomplete).”  Corn had the most petitions granted with 30; followed by 15 for cotton; 12 for soybeans; 11 for tomatoes; 8 for canola/rapeseed; 5 for potatoes; 3 for sugar beets; 2 each for papaya, rice, and squash; and 1 each for alfalfa, plum, rose, tobacco, flax, and chicory.  By trait, 43 petitions were granted for herbicide tolerance, 31 for insect resistance, 17 for product quality, 9 for agronomic properties, 8 for virus resistance, and 2 for others.”

U.S. farmers planted about 169 million acres of biotech corn, soybeans, and cotton in 2013, accounting for almost half of the U.S. land used to grow crops.  Soybeans with herbicide resistance accounted for 93 percent of total soybean acreage.  Corn and cotton with herbicide tolerance and/or insect resistance accounted for 90 percent of their respective acreage.  Herbicide tolerant crops have helped spread no-till farming since they allow more effective systems for weed control.  When USDA surveys farmers on why they use biotech seeds, about 75 percent of cotton and corn farmers say to increase yields.  Sixty percent of soybean farmers say to increase yields and another 20 percent say to decrease pesticide costs.

This seems to be inconsistent with the authors finding that, “Over the first 15 years of commercial use, GE seeds have not been shown to increase yield potentials of the varieties.”  The authors clear up the confusion in the same paragraph with a follow-up statement, “However, by protecting the plant from certain pests, GE crops can prevent yield losses to pests, allowing the plant to approach its yield potential.”  Farmers see the higher yields resulting from better weed and insect control, while saving money on input costs and freeing-up management time.

Insect-resistant or Bt crops containing a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are particularly effective at mitigating yield losses.  Before 1996, the European corn borer was only partially controlled using chemical insecticides. Many farmers accepted yield losses rather than incur the expense and uncertainty of chemical control. After the introduction of Bt corn, adopters who had previously controlled corn borer infestations using insecticides lowered their pesticide costs and increased their yields. Insecticide use on all corn farms declined from 0.21 pound per corn planted acre of corn in 1995 to 0.06 in 2005 pounds and 0.02 pound in 2010.

U.S. crop farmer continue to have challenges like glyphosate tolerant weeds, drought tolerance, nitrogen utilization, increasing yields and viral/fungal resistance.  The ERS report shows that the biotech seed industry is actively engaged in researching solutions to these and other production problems.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade &Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter |Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.