The first genetically engineered crop to be sold in supermarkets was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. But a decade later no biotech tomatoes are for sale in the United States, nor are virtually any other biotech horticultural crops. Why have genetically engineered field crops - such as soybeans, corn, canola and cotton - been wildly successful, each capturing large market shares, while biotech horticultural crops have all but disappeared?

Peer-reviewed articles published in the April-June 2004 issue of the University of California's California Agriculture journal explore the reasons why genetically engineered field (also called “agronomic”) crops have succeeded in the U.S. market, while the commercialization of horticultural crops has virtually ground to a halt. Field testing of horticultural crops - including fruits, vegetables, nuts and ornamentals - has plummeted.

In 1999, 374 field-test permits or notifications were filed for biotech horticultural crops; in 2003, the number was 94. By contrast, during the same period field permits for biotech cotton, corn and soybeans remained steady at about 500 annually.

The April-June 2004 California Agriculture can be downloaded at http://californiaagriculture.ucop.edu/pressroom.html. For a hard copy, e-mail pamela.kan-rice@ucop.edu.

“There are numerous examples of biotech horticultural crops that have performed well in the laboratory and in field tests, but have never been brought to market or were removed from the market after commercialization,” says Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis, and faculty co-chair of the 64-page California Agriculture issue. These include fungus-resistant strawberries, virus-resistant pumpkins and potatoes, and “trap crops” for tree fruits and nuts. Trap crops divert insect pests from the main crops.

Many reasons

The April-June 2004 California Agriculture delves into the myriad reasons for this phenomenon, including:

  • Horticultural crops consist of numerous, diverse varieties (such as dozens of kinds of lettuce), which increases research and development costs. Agronomic crops, by contrast, often have fewer varieties that are planted over larger acreages.

  • Too few acres of horticultural crops are planted to make the business model profitable for large life-sciences companies, as opposed to millions of acres planted in field crops.

  • Each gene-insertion “event” - even in different varieties of the same crop - must receive separate regulatory approval from three U.S. government agencies, an expensive and time-consuming process.

  • Commodity groups have been hesitant to pursue genetically engineered varieties, which they often believe may jeopardize sales of non-biotech varieties.

  • Intellectual property rights for genetically engineered crops are owned by many different people and firms, and are difficult to acquire. Most basic research on biotech horticultural crops is conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and land-grant universities, which generally do not have the resources to gather and negotiate the necessary patents and other rights.

Another factor affecting genetically engineered crops is that those that have been successfully commercialized focus on traits that benefit growers, such as insect resistance or herbicide tolerance. The next generation of transgenic traits may be more consumer-oriented, including improved nutritional value or taste - potentially attractive in the marketplace.