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Biotechnology in fruit and vegetables: a lot of research, few approvals

(23 October 2010) A multitude of plants bearing fruit and vegetables is the subject of research world-wide. Many plants developed in this manner with new traits have been tested successfully in greenhouses and in field trials. However, few endeavours currently are made towards the commercial use of such types of fruit and vegetables, as indicated by a study published in the current issue of the professional journal Nature Biotechnology.

To date, the commercial use of plants with new, biotechnologically-conferred traits has been restricted world-wide to soybeans, maize, rapeseed, cotton and, for the past four years, sugar beets.

For other cultivated plants – yielding fruit, vegetables, nuts and flowers – genetically modified (GM) varieties have not yet reached the market. Exceptions are the virus-resistant papayas that have been farmed on Hawaii for years and which in the meanwhile occupy 90 per cent of local fields and the GM squash (similar to zucchini) grown regionally in the USA, as well as GM carnations.

Fruits, vegetables and other ‘specialties’ are all of great significance in agriculture. However, new varieties with traits achieved through biotechnological processes have played no role to date. The reasons for this have been investigated in a study by Jamie Miller and Kent Bradford, two scientists at the University of California (Davis, USA). To do so, they assessed publications in scientific magazines and field trials with GM plants in 24 countries during a time period of almost six years (January 2003 to October 2008).

World-wide, 313 publications were registered on research projects with fruit, vegetables and other plant types. According to Miller and Bradford, a majority of cases indicated that the particular approach to the transfer of a new trait functioned in principle. In addition to the USA, the list compiled by the scientists cites publications from research groups from Europe, India, Japan, China, Brazil, South Korea, Israel, Tunisia and many other countries. During the time period under scrutiny, more than 800 field trials with such plants were conducted in the USA alone.

According to the study, "biotechnological plant research" addressed 77 ‘specialty types’ and transferred 206 various individual traits. The majority of these were farm-related traits (known as ‘input traits’), such as resistance to diseases or to pests but also such as an enhanced tolerance of drought, salt or heat stress. Increasingly, research projects aim towards modified product characteristics (‘output traits’) of nutrient composition or of enrichment with compounds beneficial to health.

However, this multifaceted and ‘successful’ research does not lead to commercial applications. According to Miller and Bradford, the ‘bottleneck’ is formed by the approval procedures to which all GM plants are subject world-wide and that have become more elaborate and demanding in the past years. Approvals for GM fruits and vegetables – such as tomatoes – mostly lie more than ten years in the past and new applications have not been submitted.

From the point of view of companies, new GM varieties of fruit and vegetables hardly are financially attractive. In addition to the costs associated with research, GM plants – in contrast to new breeds produced through other methods – are subject to costs incurred by the approval procedure. Miller and Bradford indicate a cost of as much as 15 million dollars for each new GM plant (event). A further consideration is that the market for such plant varieties as a rule is significantly smaller than is the case for field produce such as maize or soy.

A secondary risk for companies is consumer acceptance of food from GM plants. Such acceptance is difficult to anticipate and the rejection of such food is very pronounced in some regions. Collectively, reliable experience hardly exists with regard to consumer reaction towards GM varieties of fruit and vegetables.

In the opinion of both Californian scientists, the market introduction of such varieties will remain financially risky as long as their possible advantages are not more highly considered during approval.


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