SAO PAULO, March 4 (Reuters) - Sugar cane genetically modified for greater ethanol and sugar production could be developed in three to five years but strict Brazil biotechnology regulation could keep it off the market for as much as seven years, companies said on Tuesday.
Scientists are field-testing GMO cane varieties with higher sucrose yields than conventional ones, said Brazilian leading biotech companies Alellyx Applied Genomics and Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC).
“At this point, (the GMO cane) is more a regulatory issue than a scientific issue” said Paulo Arruda, scientific director at Alellyx Applied Genomics, developer of a variety being tested in the fields.
“If there are no major regulation setbacks, our target is to launch our first (commercial) variety in 2013-2014,” Arruda said in a workshop promoted by sugar analyst F.O. Licht.
Brazil cleared commercial use of GMO soybean and cotton after passing a biosafety law in 2005, but it has taken until February 2008 to approve any other genetically modified agricultural product.
Last month Brazil’s National Biosafety Council (CNBS) gave the final clearange for two varieties of transgenic corn for commercial use. Many other products have been waiting approval for years.
Ethanol derived from sugar cane has helped Brazil reduce its dependence on gasoline as a motor fuel.
The Alellyx genetically modified sugar cane program is focused not only in developing cane with a higher sucrose yield, but also with increased biomass and resistant to herbicides and insects and to drought.
The company, which has an agreement with U.S. biotech giant Monsanto MON.N, is especially interested in supplying GMO cane for Brazil’s new cane frontier.
“Most of Brazil’s new cane areas are degraded pastures, where pluviometric levels are lower than traditional cane producing areas,” Arruda said, explaining the importance of drought resistant varieties.
“We’d be happy if technology allows us to have 10-15 percent higher yields given the adverse conditions,” he said.
Brazil’s Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC) also sees regulatory aspects as the main barrier for GMO cane progress in Brazil rather than technical aspects.
“In three to five years it’d be possible for us to have available varieties (if regulation was okay),” Jaime Finguerut, industrial strategic development manager at CTC, told Reuters in the sidelines of the workshop.
Through the use of existing varieties, it’s possible to raise conventional cane yields currently by around 2 percent per year. With GMO cane it would be possible to double this growth, Finguerut said.
But Arruda, from Alellyx, said government approval of GMO cane varieties should be simpler than other crops like soy or corn, which took years to be accepted in Brazil, as cane is not used directly as food.
About half of Brazil’s almost 500 million tonne cane crop is turned into ethanol. Sugar, which accounts for the rest of the crop, does not contain any DNA or protein to be considered as a GMO product.
Reporting by Inae Riveras; Editing by David Gregorio