Nature Biotechnology responds:
We completely agree with Malvoisin and Grausz that there is no objective reason to avoid the development of 'mainstream' GM crops. Our editorial did not make the argument that the advantages of the GM technology to producers are negligible, far from it. Such crops can reduce farming risks and benefit both the environment and consumers, albeit indirectly sometimes. The fact is, though, that there are currently many greater opportunities for European (or any other) companies to sell GM staple crops in markets outside of Europe.
Our intention was to address current market conditions in Europe for GM products and to suggest a means by which agbiotech companies can best adapt to that market's conditions. On that basis, we believe commercial strategies other than mainstream crops may better suit small agbiotech companies targeting European markets.
A few agrochemical/seed companies currently dominate the GM crop market and this means that biotech companies have almost no direct access to mainstream agricultural markets. The best biotech companies can expect from developments in 'mainstream' crops is a few field trial evaluation–based R&D contracts and some royalties on sales, but those royalties will be low and far into the future. Especially in Europe, investors have no interest in helping agbiotech companies migrate up the value chain, which is what they need to do to survive commercially.
Malvoisin and Grausz have also completely misjudged the prevailing economic trend when they say that “Ceding the seed & produce markets to non-European producers is not in their best interests.” Recourse to such protectionist arguments might persuade some backward-looking nationalistic politicians to cut GM developers some slack, but they do not change the fact of increasing free trade in global markets. It is precisely because some European politicians, notably the environment ministers in member state governments, have sought to use biotech regulation as a non-tariff-barrier to trade that 'mainstream' GM crops have faced such difficulties in Europe.
The proposal for 'orphan' crops in niche markets is admittedly a compromise, not an ideal-world solution. It recognizes that many of the difficulties that agbiotech companies face are not technical but commercial and political. Ignoring those commercial and political dimensions has got European agbiotech where it is today with GM crops. We would like it to be somewhere else in the future.