WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2015 – Outside of the courts, representatives of several farm, grain trade and biotech companies have been meeting on a regular basis to try to develop better “rules of the road” for new product introduction. The U.S. Biotech Crops Alliance (USBCA) aims to find common ground on the introduction, stewardship, and distribution of commodities and processed products containing or derived from modern biotechnology.
The USBCA's founding organizations are the National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, American Seed Trade Association, Biotechnology Industry Organization, National Grain and Feed Association, and North American Export Grain Association. Other national organizations that subsequently joined include the American Farm Bureau Federation, Corn Refiners Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Oilseed Processors Association, North American Millers' Association, United Sorghum Checkoff Program, U.S. Canola Association, U.S. Grains Council and U.S. Soybean Export Council.
The group has been working to communicate up and down the value chain about the risks associated with the introduction of a new biotech product and how to manage those risks. On the international front, participants are still grinding out how to establish protocols in international markets for low-level presence (LLP), ensuring that small amounts of unapproved seed varieties don’t lead to another full-scale rejection of a grain shipment.
USBCA participants say they’ve made substantial progress in persuading the U.S. government to elevate biotechnology acceptance as a trade policy issue and to play a positive role in a global LLP initiative that was originally started by the Canadians. More importing and exporting countries are at least talking about the need to synchronize their approval process, they say.
But the effort to is still very complicated and may take many more years to resolve. And the longer it takes, the more reluctant some companies may be to bring new products to the market – especially when you consider that it takes about 13 years and $136 million to take a new biotechnology trait from the point of discovery through the domestic and international approval process, according to Syngenta. And that same trait may only enjoy a patent life of 20 years.
Until the group can fully address the LLP issue, many sources say it will be difficult to tackle perhaps the biggest challenge confronting the USBCA – how to assign liability for any damages that might occur and then how to ensure that those damages are paid. For example, what if an individual farmer violates his or her stewardship agreement? Would that same farmer be able to pay for a rejected shipment of grain? And what about the technology providers? At what point should they be required to pay damages – if at all?
The USBCA group hopes to find more consensus before their mid-summer board meeting.
In the meantime, biotech providers are trying to go the extra “stewardship mile” with new trait introductions that farmers say are so important – especially given increasing weed resistance to some products. The total area with resistant weeds doubled in the U.S. between 2009 and 2013, now numbering over 61 million acres, according to a survey conducted by Stratus Agri-Marketing.
For example, Dow AgroSciences is carefully guiding a limited launch of Enlist Duo this year, a herbicide-tolerant trait technology for corn and soybeans that was deregulated in September. Growers must adhere to a thorough set of stewardship protocols and requirements, overseen throughout the growing season by DowAgroSciences, including an agreement that grain from Enlist corn will be fed on farm when harvested.
Dow AgroSciences also announced it will allow a limited number of farmers to grow its Enlist soybeans under its Field Forward program – where the firm will manage the seed production throughout the season, including handling and storage after harvest. Enlist crops have been approved for import by many countries, and are in the approval process in many others, notes the company.
But as with any of the best designed stewardship plans, there’s no guarantee that some seed trait might end up in an international market where it’s not yet approved – raising the bigger question of how to make innovation a win/win for technology companies, farmers, and U.S. exporters.
“We don’t have the answer to that question yet,” noted one USBCA member. “But we are doing a much better job of communicating about the risks and the opportunities.”
In the meantime, the battle over how new science and innovation in agriculture will likely be tied up in the courts, says Iowa State University law professor Kristine Tidgren.
“It remains to be seen how these legal battle will unfold,” she wrote in a blog on this topic. “Important legal principles may be established to guide the development and dissemination of emerging food technology. In the short term, however, it seems unlikely that any clear winners will emerge.”
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