Less red tape is key to transgenics

Less regulation will allow public entities — including universities — to pursue more transgenic crop research, which will help reduce the number of diseases found in plants, a researcher said recently.

“The impact of regulatory costs on getting a transgenic crop to the field and commercialized is very high,” said Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth Plant Science Center.

With commercialization costs of $1 million to $50 million, most research investment is spent on high-return crops, such as cotton, corn and soybeans, Beachy said.

“But small crops important to Texas and California, like vegetables, are mostly locally-grown produce and are inaccessible,” he said.

Beachy was the keynote speaker at the Molecular and Environmental Plant Sciences Symposium at Texas A&M.

The high cost for commercialization “prices us from participating in this sector,” Beachy said. This means bacterial diseases and fungi on smaller-return crops will continue to be treated by chemical pesticides.

“We are being hamstrung, I think, by current policies on regulation and the cost that regulation imposes,” he said. “Don't get me wrong, regulation is important, but let's do it with a sense of what agriculture is and can be, and how biotechnology can play an important role.

“We don't want to expose the public to danger; that's not my point. My point is there are some things out there that we know are safe: these are genes moved from one plant to another plant. There's a great opportunity for plant biologists and biotechnologists such as those within the Texas A&M University System to contribute.”

Beachy, who in the 1980s pioneered the development of virus-resistance in plants through the use of transgenic technology, continues to examine protein movement in tobacco mosaic virus.

Another area of his research includes mechanisms, which express viral coat proteins responsible for disease-resistance in transgenic plants.

His discoveries in the 1980s were part of an effort to combat tobacco streak virus in India's transgenic groundnuts. The disease also has affected cotton, marigolds, okra and sunflowers.

“It looks like this 20-year-old technology will be useful in India, and it does it in a setting where it will affect up to 20 million farmers,” he said.

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