Written by Kevin Folta
Last week a workshop at the International Horticultural Congress in Lisbon, Portugal featured a series of speakers known for their work in transgenic technology. I’ll summarize these in the next few posts. Today’s post addresses an important question- why are there few horticultural (basically non-agronomic fruits and vegetables) transgenic crops available, at least relative to corn, soy and other huge agronomic crops? These are the capsules of flavor and nutrition truly necessary in a diverse diet, yet they suffer tremendous challenges to production and distribution. Transgenic technologies could deliver great benefits.
The issue was approached by Dr. Ralph Scorza from the USDA Appalachian Fruit Research Station. I’ve known of Dr. Scorza’s outstanding work for almost two decades. Years ago he sought a solution to the plum pox virus (PPV), the causative agent of a devastating disease called Sharka. The disease affects stone fruits (peaches, apricots, others) and can destroy whole orchards and decimate natural populations. While breeding solutions are being pursued with timelines measured in decades, PPV can now be mitigated with Scorza’s solution by grafting a stonefruit scion to the transgenic rootstock. Works like a charm, and the fruit are not transgenic.
The solution was introduction of a gene encoding the coat protein of PPV. When overexpressed in plums (because they are routinely transformed in the Scorza Lab), the plant became immune to the disease, almost like a vaccination. While this was interesting science it was not viewed as an application, that is until PPV was identified in the United States. While the disease was successfully controlled with quarantine, the development of PPV-resistant plums (a cultivar known as “Honeysweet”) was initiated as a solution in future outbreaks.
Years later in 2010, the Honeysweet cultivar has found approval. It is a true minority, as very few horticultural crops are ever approved, reserving much of the focus for major agronomical crops like soy and corn. To date, only 6% of de-regulated crops are horticultural and only 1% had viable commercial potential. Of that, 0.2 were crops other than tomato and potato. Therein lies the question, why are transgenic technologies not approved (or even pursued) in fruits and vegetables?
A mere 127 horticultural crop lines have sought deregulation, but the vast majority of these did not complete the process to commercialization. Dr. Scorza indicates that the costs of pursuing deregulation and testing are incredibly expensive, leading companies or universities to abandon the process in mid-stream, even if promising.
He goes on to describe other potential reasons for the waning desire to deregulate. First, there is a relatively small market for any given horticultural crop, so the likelihood of substantial profit is low, an important consideration when the costs of R&D and deregulation are concerned. Universities and small companies do not have the funds, infrastructure or intellectual property resources required to hustle the process along. Horticultural companies and universities may understand the potentially negative perception that the public has on safe transgenic technology, so they stay away from attempting to commercializing transgenic plant lines that while scientifically proven, may not be tremendously profitable.
The other key reason while these crops do not navigate the maze to deregulation is because there is no incentive for the scientist. Inventing a solution to a horticultural problem does not bring in grant money, does not generate publications, and requires a tremendous investment of time in meetings and paperwork that may never be rewarded. Ask anyone working in the public science sector– we didn’t get into it for the love of beaurocracy. Additionally, there are steep consequences of not following the approval process to the letter, with substantial fines and/or regulatory action. Together these barriers frame a formidable disincentive. To date the effect shows, as private concerns have deregulated many achievements in tomato, potato, squash and tobacco, whereas public entities have only released (the amazingly successful) papaya and now plum.
The other problem is the aforementioned maze of regulatory hassle. There are three major levels of approval for a GM food crop. The first is through USDA-APHIS, an agency that regulates the growing of GM foods. “Honeysweet” cleared this barrier quickly. Next the FDA has to approve safety. For ‘Honeysweet’ that took 2.5 years. Finally, the EPA must approve the new organism, a process that took almost 3 years in the case of ‘Honeysweet’.
After all of the regulatory hurdles the product still may not be commercialized, mostly based on public perception. For instance, it cost nearly half a million dollars to build raspberry plants resistant to the Raspberry Bushy Dwarf Virus, a devastating disease. While the plants work brilliantly, the industry suggested they not be commercialized due to public fears.
The other problems are from coordinated attacks by anti-GE groups. In 2007, while ‘Honeysweet’ was in the process of deregulation, instructions on gmofreetrees.com provided details to cut-and-paste complaints into websites of federal agencies. Of the 1725 notes provided, 1708 were negative to ‘Honeysweet’ deregulation, but all followed the cut-and-paste format.
Dr. Scorza completed his discussion by noting that transgenic plant acceptance will be disaster driven. When farmers and consumers have no choice, then the new technologies will be accepted. Problems such as PPV in stonefruits, Pierce’s disease in grapes, and citrus greening may all soon benefit from transgenic technology with existing tools that may save an industry. Even crusty old Europe is considering ‘Honeysweet’ and weighing real risks in the face of losing tremendous stonefruit populations to a viral outbreak. Just as a major outbreak of polio will send anti-vaccination parents scurrying for a jab, the adoption of GE technology will be found quite acceptable when scenarios dictate no other choice.
I agree with Dr. Scorza’s assessment. Anti-GE interests don’t trust big, private agribusiness, but then simultaneously support a regulatory system where only it can thrive. Public scientists that have a mission of societal contribution lack the funds and infrastructure to obtain approval have trouble competing in the disincentivized process.
Dr. Scorza concluded that he remains optimistic. Consumers have accepted GM soy and corn. The acceptance of horticultural crops will happen eventually, but the barriers to application will make the process slow, impeding potential benefits to the consumer, the farmer and the environment.
Written by Guest Expert
Kevin Folta has studied biology and agricultural biotechnology for over thirty years. His research examines the role of light in controlling plant traits, especially those relevant to agriculture. His group is known for using innovative genomics approaches to identify genes associated with fruit quality, especially flavors and aromas.