A feature article published in Nature Biotechnology in January this year reflected on a 2008 paper from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre on the state of GM crops in development or commercial use at that time, and used this data to see what has become of these projects between the publishing of that research and now. The aim of the article was to get a sense of:
- How many of the research projects have since entered into commercial use;
- How quickly the research and approval has advanced;
- How many projects have dropped off the list;
- What type of genetic modifications were being made to the crop; and
- Who was performing the research.
The changes over this period of time were then extrapolated to estimate what sort of advances we are likely to see in the period up to 2020 and where they are likely to come from.
What we saw in 2008
At the time of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre study, GM products were mostly limited to soybean, cotton, maize and oilseed rape crops and were usually modified for herbicide resistance. Research and production of these crops were limited mainly to multinational corporations.
What we see now
Looking at the number of research projects that existed in 2008 and were subsequently approved for commercial use at the time of writing the feature article, it was estimated that there may be 219 GM crops approved by 2020, 96 of which would be in commercial use. There is a limitation alerted to by the authors in making their prediction – more than half of the research and development projects identified in 2008 could not be found for updating.
Although the 4 major transgenic crops referred to above continue to be the focus of development, it was noted that there were advances in development of crops such as GM rice, potato, herbicide-tolerant alfalfa, and commercially available insect resistant eggplant and poplar.
Herbicide and insect resistant traits continue to dominate the types of modifications being made to crops. However, the increase in research publications on abiotic stress (such as drought and salinity) resistance, virus-resistance and yield increases, all problems usually linked with climate change, seem to have led to, or coincided with, the development of crops with these qualities for commercial use. In fact, a number of drought tolerant crops, such as an Indonesian sugarcane, reached commercial or pre-commercial stages in 2014.
An increase was also noted in the number of crops modified for quality traits such as fortifying crops with particular essential nutrients (the Golden Rice Project is a favourite example).
Multinational companies are still the main players in GM research and development but there has been a rise in the number of other private companies and public institutions involved and the development. Further, use and development of transgenic technology can now be seen in countries such as India, Brazil and parts of Africa. Crop developers in developing countries are more likely to direct their efforts into new crops in what could be seen as increasing the use of the technology to address local concerns and conditions.
As the use of this technology spreads and the cost of developing transgenic cultivars reduces, it can be expected that the development of GM crops will expand away from the current dominance of herbicide-specific tolerance which have kept multinational companies dominant in this field. Knowledge in the development of food crops adapted to a particular environment or to be resistant to a particular disease can only increase the possibility of reducing hunger throughout the world.