GM tobacco--when, if ever? - Fourth Quarter 2008
Genetically modified tobacco could provide agricultural benefits to growers and reduce risk to consumers. What is holding it back?
Imagine a tobacco farmer as he looks over his books. He sees rising expenses for chemical defenses to guard against disease. He sees elevating costs as he buys insecticides to prevent pests from taking his profits. He sees these costs cutting into his ever-thinning profit margin.
Then he goes to the top of the ledger, and under variety, he crosses out what was there and puts in the words “genetically modified tobacco.” The chemical preventatives he was forced to buy before suddenly disappear from his ledger—and the cost difference shows up on his bottom line.
That is the basic idea in a grower’s dream scenario of how much better growing tobacco can become with genetically modified tobacco. Sam Baker of Cross Creek Seed feels the adoption of GM tobacco by manufacturers can spark its potential into full bloom.
“One train of thought may be that you could create a ‘super variety,’ such as K 326, that would keep its current quality and characteristics but would be completely immune to all viruses and diseases,” he says.
Dr. H. Maelor Davies, the director of the Kentucky Tobacco Research Development Center at the University of Kentucky, acknowledges that most of these traits have been achieved in GM varieties in laboratory settings.
“There are plenty of examples of laboratory-scale accomplishments in genetically modifying tobacco for such agriculturally relevant traits as resistance to insects, at least partial resistance to certain diseases, tolerance of herbicides, defined changes in leaf chemistry,” he says. “Many of these demonstrations go back several years, and they were developed because tobacco has often been used as a convenient test plant in laboratory research.”
Davies points out that a new trait developed in a lab or greenhouse may not translate into a good trait in a commercial environment. “But the science is certainly there to effect many of the desired modifications,” he says.
Experience with small-scale, trial field production of traditional tobacco next to GM tobacco has already produced safe operating practices to prevent possible cross-contamination between GM and non-GM crops. This leads Davies to believe contamination of GM tobacco is not a major concern in a practical application.
The notion of scientifically altering the makeup of the tobacco plant to gain favorable characteristics is not limited to just agricultural benefits. Studies have delivered GM plants that can reduce the level of nicotine and cancer-causing nitrosamines in the plant, providing the chance to create a reduced-risk product. Other applications could include GM tobacco for pharmaceutical applications, or even as a biofuel or a feedstock.
So if GM tobacco can provide a crop that is less costly to grow, less harmful to use traditionally, and even beneficial in certain applications, why aren’t growers harvesting hundreds of tons of it right now?
Dr. Michael Moynihan is the vice president of research and development of 22nd Century Limited, LLC, a company very much interested in where GM tobacco is going.
Moynihan’s job is to oversee a global network of scientists that are working on different ways to make use of GM tobacco.
Moynihan sees the question of GM tobacco as a which-comes-first scenario.
“There is a chicken and egg problem – if you don’t have a market, why grow it, and if nobody is growing it, why would there be a market?” he says.
The application of GM tobacco in a product that can be made and marketed in a productive and profitable manner is a sticking point. One of the chief difficulties is a perceived stigma about the effect of a genetically modified product on the human body. Some forward the notion that all GM products are bad. Moynihan points to the many GM products in use in agriculture today.
“In fact, in the United States a large part of what everybody eats is either made from genetically modified crops or fed from genetically modified crops already,” he says. “Something like 70 percent of the corn and 90 percent of the soybeans are GM, and in North Carolina 90 percent of the cotton is GM. So it is in the market. Every (GM) product that has been put on the shelves has been bought by somebody.”
The market problem has not been with consumers, but with access to the market. The global market’s feeling on GM products has been mixed, with most opposition coming from the European Union.
“I think that is a concern for large companies, yes, because there are differences regionally,” Moynihan said. “Not only is it a problem of whether or not the consumer acceptance is there—which is less important than people seem to think it is—but also there is a regulatory cost. The regulations are not the same in different parts of the world, and that makes life difficult if you are operating in different areas. It’s a burden.”
That view is shared by Baker, who said acceptance by the EU would be the key to opening the GM tobacco markets worldwide.
“I don't see GMO tobacco becoming available anytime soon,” he says. “I think the delay may be the EU, which has put more restrictions on tobacco than most places. When and if they ever accept it, I think we would have a chance at it. However, at this time it does not seem to be in the cards.”
Moynihan sees global competition as a touchstone to moving tobacco production into areas of the country outside the traditional region. “If a company was willing to use genetically modified tobacco and contract with growers to grow specific varieties for them, and keep it segregated—I think there is going to be more competition for tobacco growers inside the United States and between the U.S. and foreign producers that is going to make it harder to resist,” he says.
From there, the “niche market” of GM tobacco can develop into traditional and nontraditional use crops. But the missing link is a company willing to put GM tobacco to the test.
One such company was Vector Tobacco, an affiliate of Liggett. The company developed a brand of cigarettes with GM tobacco that offered lower levels of nicotine than conventional cigarettes. The Quest brand, with three different nicotine levels aimed at smokers who wanted less nicotine, was launched in 2003 in eight U.S. states and entered markets in Arizona a year later.
While Vector stopped using GM tobacco last year, Moynihan points to the Vector enterprise as evidence that GM tobacco can have a place in the market.
“The lesson from Vector was that there was not a real barrier,” he says. “They were able to develop a product and put it on the market. It was sold for multiple years, and there was not a huge outcry. The good news is that nothing much happened. Of course, the bad news was that nothing much happened.”
22nd Century is continuing to develop different uses for GM tobacco and finding out how to turn those uses into marketable products. The very low nicotine tobacco line is being evaluated in cigarettes as a smoking cessation product. Other applications include potential reduced-risk tobacco products and tobacco varieties that will increase yield and productivity.
Tobacco could be used as a biofuel product, which requires plants with large amounts of biomass. Davies said his center is working at research level on using GM tobacco to generate industrial materials, such as the enzyme catalysts used in conversion of plant biomass to biofuels.
The key is finding a company that can take a risk with a GM tobacco product. Moynihan does not see a large company taking the risk—the market would be small, and the reward not substantial enough. It will take a smaller company—one with a bit of daring.
“The problem is that the tobacco industry has just a few large players, and they are pretty conservative, so I don’t think they will be the first ones,” he says. “Nobody wants to take the heat, but I think it will happen.”
So it is not a question of if, but when, GM tobacco will gain acceptance in the market. Once that happens, using GM tobacco as a conduit, the golden leaf could discover a new boom.
“Over the next several years, you will start to see a few niche products,” said Moynihan. “Once that opens up, things will start to move … academic researchers have made and tested some very interesting stuff, but they have not been able to take it to market.”
Not yet, that is.