Geneticists on GMO wheat

I previously noted some skepticism about GMO wheat by a prominent wheat geneticist.  Thus, I was interested to see this piece in The Scientist that included several interesting observations from other wheat geneticists.  

One of the the things that the story makes clear is that many traits of interest (in this particular story, the trait happens to be resistance to stem rust - a disease that can result in significant yield loss) can often be eventually achieved through traditional breeding or through newer "non GMO" molecular techniques including cloning and cisgenic technology (like transgenic technologies but involves moving genes within a species). The main problem with developing rust-resistant varieties using traditional breeding techniques is lost time:

But using traditional breeding strategies to pyramid resistance genes is time-consuming. In a typical wheat-breeding program, “from the first cross to the release of a variety, it’s about eight to nine years,” says James Anderson, the head of the wheat-breeding program at the University of Minnesota. And that’s just to develop a strain that carries one gene of interest. To stack three, four, or even five rust-resistance genes can add several more years to that time line. At CIMMYT, Singh and his colleagues have been working for nearly a decade to breed varieties that have multiple adult resistance genes. 

So, why not use biotechnology?  The main barrier to the use of technologies that happen to fall under the "GMO" umbrella isn't necessarily technological know-how but potential public opposition and regulatory costs - something I mentioned in my previous post:

One of the huge costs is that related to regulatory burden associated with creating and commercializing seeds made with GM technologies relative to other breeding technologies.  That sounds to me like good motivation to work on attempts to bring down the regulatory costs associated with genetic engineering.  It also suggests a need to work on public opposition with scientific communication on the health and environmental aspects of genetic engineering.  It also makes me wonder if activist pressures might eventually bring molecular breeding techniques under a similar regulatory umbrella that now drives up the cost of commercializing GM.

Here are a couple choice quotes from the article that highlight the regulatory costs

One way to hasten the development of a long-lasting stem rust–resistant wheat variety is to engineer plants’ DNA to carry resistance genes, creating what are known as genetically modified (GM) crops. But at many of the facilities that develop wheat varieties—primarily led by academic breeding groups, in contrast to the commercial domination of corn and soybean development—such transgenic approaches are taboo, as public opposition, regulatory expenses, and genetic complexity have kept wheat transgenics off the market. “We could do millions of things [with transgenics],” says Jorge Dubcovsky, a wheat geneticist and breeder at the University of California, Davis, “but we have our hands tied.”


But the prospect of GM wheat faces additional hurdles. Because the crop is regionally idiosyncratic—farmers in South Dakota use different varieties than those in Washington or Kansas, for instance—it is not possible to develop a single blockbuster variety that can be sold across the country. As a result, unlike corn and soybeans, which are primarily sold by agribusiness corporations, new wheat varieties for local farmers have primarily come from academic breeders, and universities can rarely afford the expense of regulatory review by the multiple government agencies that approve GM crops. “In the public sector, we cannot release transgenics because we cannot afford the regulatory costs,” says Dubcovsky.

The last quote highlights two important issues.  One is the interesting political economy created by the localized nature wheat breeding.  Many new wheat varieties have historically been released by public Land-Grant Universities, and producers in the respective states have, in some cases, come to expect such new varieties to be free (or at least inexpensive) based on the premise that they were developed using taxpayer dollars.  Wheat producers in many states, presumably, don't want to have to buy seed from large agro-chemical companies, and that can create barriers to Universities partnering with such companies to commercialize traits.  That leads to the second issue highlighted in the quote, which is the fact that many universities don't have the resources or the regulatory know-how to attain approval and commercialize a new variety.  Almost paradoxically, those who have been calling for increased regulatory burden for GMOs have handed large agro-chemical companies a ticket to increased market power.  

Here's what I had to say about that in the Food Police

 But, who benefits from stricter regulations that make it harder to enter the market for biotech seeds?  It certainly isn’t the small start-up firms [or universities] trying to break down entry barriers to get their new invention on the market.  Rather, it’s the establish behemoths who have teams of lawyers and lobbyists who can absorb the regulatory costs that keep out their smaller competitors. Adding regulatory hurdles hasn’t dampened Monsanto’s market power, it has enhanced it. 

They key isn't to try to keep large agribusinesses out of the seed and biotech market, but rather to make sure that the barriers to entry are low enough that anybody can compete with them.