Thursday, 30 April 2015

The not so magic bean

There are many failures on the road to successful innovation, so entrepreneurs need to know when to pull the plug on a project and when to push doggedly onward.

In the GM plant business, gaining regulatory approval clears a huge hurdle. In fact, you'd expect it to be the last hurdle, because it would be odd to incur the application costs until you were pretty confident you had a marketable product. So this week's news from Brazil is stunning.

Embrapa, a state-owned agricultural research company, is reported to have stopped commercial release of its new GM bean, despite having already gained approval from the regulator. Embrapa decided that

  • the benefits (virus resistance) were over-sold, and
  • the costs (toxicity etc) were not properly investigated.

I think Embrapa did the right thing here. You could argue (as GM Watch does in the above link) that it shouldn't have been working on this topic at all, that virus resistant plants are a mirage. Maybe they are; I don't know. Still, I think Embrapa deserves huge credit for not releasing their bean. With the regulator on side they could surely have sold it but decided to forego those revenues. Its difficult to imagine a profit-motivated GM developer behaving this way.

The whole regulatory apparatus needs total reform though. The GMWatch piece gives an insight into their process:
In a decision taken by fifteen members of CTNBio – including representatives from the defense, foreign affairs and other ministries – the transgenic bean was authorized for planting and consumption. Four dissenting votes, representing the ministries of health, environment, and NGOs, advocated further studies. 
This sounds like a political process disconnected from the realms of science, health and ecology. Bear in mind too that this decision was taken 3 years ago: all good for planting and consumption. Now, 3 years later after further work Embrapa kills off the whole project.

I'm starting to understand how Brazil got to be such a goldmine for GM companies.