By Dr. Emil Q. Javier
‘There are those
who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were,
and ask why not?’
– Robert Kennedy
I just received a copy of the Global Status of Biotech Crops in 2016 published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) which is headed by a Filipino, Randy Hautea, and which has its headquarters at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in Los Baños.
For 2016, the global hectarage of biotech crops was 185 million, an increase of 5.4 million hectares, or a three percent increase from previous year.
This brings the cumulative hectarage of biotech crops since 1996 when they were first commercialized to 2.1 billion hectares. This outstanding performance makes the rate of adoption of biotech crops the fastest among agricultural technologies in modern times (a 110-fold increase over a 21-year period).
Biotech crops are now commercially grown in 26 countries, of which 19 are developing countries and seven are industrial countries. The Philippines with 800,000 hectares of GMO yellow corn hybrids is ranked 13th, next to Australia. Of the top ten so-called biotech mega countries, only the USA (No.1) and Canada (No.4) are developed countries. Brazil, Argentina, India, Paraguay and Pakistan are in the vanguard among the developing countries. China thus far is ranked only No.8 but is massively investing in agricultural biotech research. That would change soon with the recent corporate takeover by a Chinese national chemical company of Europe-based Syngenta which is one of the world’s largest biotech seed companies.
Data on the global benefits of biotech crops continue to add up. Since 1996 the aggregate increase in farm productivity is worth US$ 167.8 billion.
Over the 21-year period, it is estimated that 620 million kilograms of active ingredients (a.i.) of pesticides have been saved which otherwise would have been dumped into the environment. For 2015 alone, the non-use of pesticides due to planting of biotech crops was equivalent to 32.4 million kilograms a.i. equivalent.
As far as preserving the world’s diversity, the additional production from biotech crops also meant a saving of 174 million hectares of natural forests and grasslands which otherwise would have been cleared and cultivated to match the extra production.
And in terms of alleviating poverty and hunger, eighteen million small famers world-wide directly benefited from growing biotech crops.
Third Generation Biotech Crops to Benefit Consumers
The first generation biotech crops were dominated by soybean, corn, canola (oil crop) and cotton which have tolerance to herbicide application and resistance to insects. The second generation biotech crops stacked these traits together, and added drought tolerance, in anticipation of climate change.
A larger part of the benefits accrued directly to the farmers themselves in terms of less field losses and hence, higher yields; less costs and health-wise, less exposure to pesticides.
In contrast, for the incoming third generation biotech crops, many of the improvements are directed to consumer preference and nutrition (i.e. inputs traits important to farmers versus output traits of interest to consumers).
In the pipeline are soybean with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, normally obtained from fish; with high oleic acid; low phytate for more available phosphorus, and high stearic acid. Also available soon are potato with modified starch/sugar; low lignin, more digestible alfalfa for livestock, and non-browning potato and apple. Rice with high beta carotene (Golden Rice) and high ferritin (more iron) are already in advanced stages of development.
Also noteworthy is the dispersal of development efforts in many countries and broadening coverage of biotech beyond the original big four crops (soybeans, corn, carrots and cotton). Uganda is working on bunchy-top virus resistant banana, late blight resistant and nematode resistant potato. Australia is testing Fusarium wilt-resistant banana; wheat with disease and drought tolerance and altered oil and grain composition. India has initiatives in insect resistant legumes like chickpea and pigeon pea and biotech mustard with modified oil content. Of immediate interest to us is drought tolerant biotech sugarcane being developed by Indonesia and India.
Regulatory barriers holding back progress
As mainstream scientists had been saying all along, the health and environment concerns of biotech opponents are proving to be more imaginary than real. After 21 years of worldwide commercialization, biotech crops to date have an unblemished record of safe use and consumption.
The United Nations (FAO and WHO) and the world’s leading national academics of sciences and medicines have categorically come forward with statements that genetically modified crops are no different from conventionally – bred crops in terms of probable risks to human health and the environment.
Here at home we have been growing biotech yellow corn hybrids since 2002 and we have yet to hear of poisoning and allergy among farmers and among poultry and livestock.
Unfortunately our one-and-only PINOY biotech crop, the UPLB fruit borer insect resistant eggplant, is still snarled up in the regulatory system. Our partners in Bangladesh, with whom we collaborated in transferring the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterial gene into Philippine-bred varieties have gone ahead two years ago and released the Bt eggplant to their farmers. They have planted over 700 hectares without any reported untoward consequences.
Time to move on and be more realistic in the regulation of biotech crops. This same Bacillus thuringiensis bacterial gene had been incorporated into two billion hectares of soybean, corn, cotton and other crops with no ill effects. No point in mindlessly repeating the same tests conducted by responsible national institutions who are not any less competent and patriotic than our own.
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org.