Volume 58, Issue 2, 2004
Technological change has driven economic progress in agriculture and will continue to play a crucial role in the 21st century. The latest wave of technological change in agriculture is based in molecular biology. Will horticulture participate? Genetically engineered crop varieties have been adopted on a wide scale in some agronomic crops, but horticultural crops face larger hurdles. High costs for research, development and regulatory approval combined with the small acreages planted and the diversity of varieties, will limit the potential for profitable applications of biotechnology to many fruits and vegetables, tree fruits and nuts, and nursery crops. In addition, there are market barriers. Like most important changes in agriculture, modern biotechnology has met with spirited political opposition from some quarters. Threats of political action may discourage food manufacturers and retailers from adopting biotech products that are wanted by some consumers and may be profitable for growers.
The acreage of agronomic crops (soybean, cotton, corn and canola) developed using recombinant DNA technology has expanded dramatically since their introduction in 1996, while the commercialization of biotech horticultural crops (vegetables, fruits, nuts and ornamentals) has languished. This is not due to a lack of both current and potential traits that could be utilized in horticultural crops, as ongoing research is identifying a diverse array of applications. However, commercialization is stalled by market reluctance to accept biotech products, particularly in the absence of clear benefits to consumers. High regulatory costs and restricted access to intellectual property create additional hurdles for specialty crops. These challenges are causing the horticultural industry to forego a number of current benefits. New products with clear advantages for producers, marketers and consumers may be required before the potential of biotechnology can be realized.
Results from consumer surveys reveal some basic conclusions about consumer attitudes toward agricultural biotechnology. First, consumers do not agree about whether biotech foods are good or bad. Second, a small group of people strongly opposes them. Third, the majority of consumers are uninformed about the technology and how food is produced. Relatively small but vocal anti-biotechnology activist groups are successful at influencing public opinion because of consumers’ lack of knowledge, creating a role for universities and government agencies to provide clear, objective and accessible information.
Development of transgenic horticultural crops has slowed significantly in recent years for several reasons, including the European Union’s moratorium on biotech approvals, lack of tolerance levels for adventitious (accidental) presence in food and seed, significantly increased regulatory costs and decreased acceptance by food wholesalers and retailers. While progress in the United States has slowed and approvals in the European Union stopped, some countries such as China continue to develop biotech products for their internal and external markets that will affect the U.S. and California industry. Within a few years, China will emerge as the leader in biotech horticultural crops.
University-industry partnerships are proliferating in the United States, as public funding for high-level research continues to decline yet knowledge plays an increasingly important role in industrial processes. The horticulture industry benefits from such arrangements by influencing research directions and gaining access to innovations and complementary research in agricultural biotechnology. Given the nature of this industry, the obstacles to developing effective partnerships are substantial. Private horticulture institutions should form consortia of both small- and medium-sized firms, and they should understand the need for faculty and academic freedom. More enterprising members of a consortium can capitalize on the research contacts and pursue firmspecific, applied-research partnerships. Potential drawbacks are the exclusion of smaller firms and inequitable benefits-sharing within the consortia.
Inefficiencies in accessing intellectual property (IP) appear to be hindering otherwise valuable research and development (R&D) in horticultural crop varieties. While leading private sector agricultural biotechnology firms with strong IP positions and commercial freedom to operate (FTO) see insufficient incentives in the small, fractured markets of horticultural products, researchers with public-sector support for horticultural projects but weak IP positions may find that the best way of gaining FTO and moving forward is to band together and provide mutual access to one another’s technologies. The Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), headquartered at UC Davis, is a new coalition of U.S. universities and foundations committed to this strategy.