The Birth of a Biotech Trait: How Biotech Seeds are Created and Approved
Biotechnology improves seeds available to farmers, providing them with new ways to combat weeds, insects and other agronomic challenges, and produce more food, feed and fuel to better meet customer needs.
Biotechnology helps make agriculture more sustainable – both economically and environmentally. Continued advancements, such as increased yield, help soybean farmers meet the growing global demand for protein and oil using less land and fewer inputs.
The most prominent example of biotech in soybeans are herbicide-resistant varieties which have contributed to a significant increase in weed control. This allows farmers to almost completely eliminate plowing on their fields, resulting in better soil health, improved water retention and decreased herbicide runoff for improved water quality, according to the United Soybean Board’s The Benefits of Biotechnology report. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service found that 93 percent of U.S. soybean acreage planted this year was herbicide-resistant.
But before a farmer plants a biotech seed in the ground, it undergoes many tests in the lab and regulatory approvals to assure it’s safe. Creating a new biotech trait, bringing it to market and obtaining global approvals is a process that usually takes between seven and 10 years from start to finish.
“Every country and the European Union has its own process to approve both the cultivation and the import of product containing a trait that has been produced using biotechnology,” said Laura Foell, chair of the United Soybean Board (USB) Global Opportunities program and a soybean farmer from Iowa.
Let’s take a look at that process using the high-oleic soybean trait as an example. High-oleic soybean varieties contain a biotech trait that was approved domestically in the last few years and is currently undergoing approval processes in multiple countries. This soybean oil offers a healthy alternative for many food applications, such as baking and frying.
Ag industry leaders, including soy checkoff farmer-leaders, were the first to identify the food industry’s need for an improved soy oil. Scientists acted on this idea by identifying several specific genes that, inserted into soybean DNA, could create their desired results. Next, they grew plants containing the trait in a lab-controlled environment, where extensive research was put into crossing it with high-performing varieties and testing it for performance, yield and safety.
Once scientists proved the high-oleic soybean trait could be part of successful and productive varieties, it underwent the rigorous domestic approval process to assess potential risks to human health and the environment. USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) share oversight of biotechnology experimental testing, approval and eventual commercial release. Currently, high-oleic soybeans are sold domestically only because of supply, although the United States is seeking approvals from regulatory agencies in other countries in case a shipment is accidently sent overseas.
“Since we export more than half of our soybeans, it is important for farmers to realize that we can have shipments turned away from countries if it contains even a trace of a non-approved soybean or corn trait,” Foell said.