Published 2014 by NABC.

Taxpayers in the United States have invested heavily in public-sector research in agricultural biotechnology to provide more-sustainable and productive crops and safe and nutritious foods. Since the mid-1980s, scientists at the USDA and in university and small private laboratories have developed a broad range of genetically engineered (GE) varieties of specialty crops with useful traits including enhanced tolerances of biotic and abiotic stresses and improved nutrition1. Almost a thousand different GE lines of small-market and specialty crops1 were among the almost 17,000 regulated field trials approved by USDA since 1987.

In spite of this large public investment—as well as early technical successes and promising results in field trials—only a few GE specialty crops developed in public institutions have been released to date:

  • Virus-resistant papaya
  • A now defunct flax intended to be used for bioremediation
  • Virus-resistant plum

These are very sparse returns considering substantial public investment over a quarter century. In fact, the majority of scientists at public institutions do not even consider further development of GE crops for commercial utility, even for traits that could advance agricultural systems, improve human health and help feed the increasing global population. On the other hand, there are signs that this trend is changing. Several transgenic events in specialty crops, are now moving towards commercialization as a result of collaborative efforts involving universities, industry, and regulatory agencies. Furthermore, the Farm Bill—passed in February 2014—has restored the Specialty Crop Research Initiative funding, to about $80 million per crop.

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