1 November 1996

Britain to slip back as biotech booms ahead?

UK farmers are being left behind in the biotechnology stakes, says one worried researcher. Robert Harris reveals his concerns

MILLIONS of acres of genetically modified crops are being harvested in North America this season. This side of the Atlantic, such crops are still in trials.

"There are no significant plantings in Europe," says Ben Miflin, research director at IACR-Rothamsted, Herts. "The speed at which things happen over here is out of step with the US."

That is because it is economically more attractive for companies to invest in North American markets, he believes. Having invested millions of pounds in research and development, they need to recoup that money quickly to satisfy shareholders. "When you look at the investment in plant biotechnology, it is immense. But no-one to date is making any money out of it."

That is one reason why herbicide tolerance is the first trait to hit the market – it is commercially attractive.

"Companies can directly link that trait to increased sales of agrochemicals, and see a chance of making money." UK growers can expect a range of herbicide-tolerant crops to be on the market by end of the decade. But other traits, like pest resistance, mean chemical companies stand to lose chemical sales. And enhanced yield and quality dont involve extra inputs to provide companies with an income.

They will have to rely on seed royalties instead, says Prof Miflin. That means they are concentrating on widely-grown hybrid crops like maize, which cannot be farm-saved, so guaranteeing an annual income. Maize resistant to the European corn borer is already widely grown in the USA.

Unfortunately, traditional inbred crops like wheat and other cereals which are important to UK growers produce insufficient income to support the enormous cost of developing new biotechnologies, he maintains.

"The total sum of plant breeders rights received from seed royalties in the UK is no more than £20m a year. Seed companies are running at a marginal profit at best."

There is no easy answer, he adds. Such crops are difficult and expensive to hybridise. Without that safety net, the cost of applying the new technology is out of proportion to any potential return.

Contracts which prohibit growers to plant once-grown seed, allowing companies to recoup an annual technology fee, are of limited use.

"There are severe limitations, not least enforcement. If 100 farmers elect to grow their own seed, is a company really going to sue them and risk all the bad publicity that entails?"

EU regulations are also stifling development, says Prof Miflin. "While I would not like to see any slip in safety standards, there is room to update them to make life easier for companies."

The US has done just that, he points out. "Since 1990, 90% of field tests on the six major crops involving a range of possible traits have been done on a simple notification procedure. That means companies can do field tests very quickly, and commercial clearance can be obtained within a year."

The rest of the world is following that lead. But Europe is still using procedures set out in 1990. To clear a product, the country intending to release has to approve it, then seek agreement from other member states. That can take twice as long compared with the US procedure. "So where are companies going to develop their products?"

UK combines will soon be harvesting herbicide-resistant oilseed rape. But crops like cereals may be left behind as companies turn to hybrids to recoup development costs through seed royalties, says IACR-Rothamsteds Prof Miflin (inset).


&#8226 Seed royalties needed to offset loss of chemical sales.

&#8226 Hybrid crops best route.

&#8226 EU red tape hindering progress.

&#8226 Lack of government support for research.