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Biotech crops winning the GMO debate with continuing expansion


Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Dr. Emil Q. Javier

Even as the debate over the safety of genetic modification rages on, farmers worldwide are voting with their pockets as they continue to plant more biotech crops. For 2017, global hectarage of biotech (bt) crops increased 4.7 million hectares over the previous year i.e. from 185.1 million hectares to 189.8 million hectares, an increase of three percent.

Since 1996 when biotech crops were first commercialized, the cumulative hectarage has reached 2.3 billion hectares. This is a staggering 11,200 percent increase from the initial plantings of 1.7 million hectares. This phenomenon makes biotech crops the fastest growing agricultural technology innovation in recent memory.

These figures come from the latest update on the “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in 2017,” published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an international non-government organization (NGO) based in Los Baños, which until recently was headed by an outstanding Filipino scientist, Dr. Randy Hautea, who just passed away.

The following provide a snapshot of the growing popularity of the technology and the mounting benefits derived from them to consumers, to farmers and more widely to the environment, contrary to the fears of critics:

Seventeen million farmers in 24 countries now commercially grow biotech crops. Forty-three other countries do not grow biotech crops on their own but import them for human food, for animal feed and for processing.

Eighteen countries plant at least 50,000 hectares of biotech crops (the so- called Mega genetically modified (GM) countries). The five leading producers are USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and India. The Philippines grew 642,000 hectares of GM corn last year and is ranked 13th, after Australia.

The top four biotech crops are soybeans, maize, cotton and canola each with 94 million, 60 million, 24 million and 10 million hectares, respectively. The adoption rates of biotech varieties/hybrids for these major crops in USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and India are close to saturation (over 90 percent) and therefore prospects for further rapid expansion for these crops in these countries are limited. However, there is still much room for expansion in the rest of world. The global rates of adoption of biotech crops are still below 50 percent, i.e. for soybean (50%), maize (31%), cotton (13%) and canola (5%).

Expansion expected from other crops and with other traits

The initial rapid expansion of biotech crops concentrated on soybean, maize, cotton and canola and on two agronomic traits important to farmers: 1) natural resistance to insect pests, and 2) tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate to allow for more effective and economic control of weeds. Glyphosate is very effective against a wide range of weeds and is a relatively benign (not very toxic) chemical.

The next generation of biotech crops cover other crops and incorporate a wide range of desirable traits important both to the consumers and farmers, and more widely, to the conservation of the environment.

Already in the market are herbicide-tolerant sugar beets; low-lignin, highly digestible alfalfa for livestock; virus-resistant papaya; virus-resistant squash; insect-resistant eggplant; non- browning potatoes and apples, drought – tolerant maize, drought – tolerant sugar cane, and pink-fleshed pineapple. And also fast-growing salmon.

In the research pipeline at different stages of development are insect-resistant, bio-fortified (Golden) rice; insect – and disease-resistant bananas, potato, wheat, chickpea, pigeon pea, mustard, cowpea and bio-fortified cassava and sweet potato.

Global benefits from biotech
crops continue to add up

Data on the global benefits from biotech crops continue to add up. The additional productivity worldwide from biotech crops during the period 1996 to 2016 has been estimated at 658 million tons valued at US$186 billion. The incremental productivity in 2016 alone was 82 million tons valued at US$18 billion.

As far as preserving biodiversity, the additional productivity from biotech crops saved the equivalent of 183 million hectares of natural forests and grasslands which otherwise would have cleared and put under the plow to match the extra production.

Over the 22-year period, the use of insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant biotech varieties and hybrids saved 671 million kilograms of active ingredients (a.i.) of pesticides which otherwise would have been dumped into the environment.

And in terms of helping alleviate poverty and hunger, 17 million farmers and their dependents totaling more than 65 million have benefitted in growing biotech crops.

Pinoy bt eggplant and golden rice still in regulatory limbo

After 22 years of commercialization and harvesting of 2.3 billion hectares of biotech crops worldwide, not a single instance of allergenicity and poisoning from the cultivation and consumption of biotech-derived products has been recorded. The fears raised by the critics of GM technology are proving to be exaggerated and unreal.

However, the critics of the new biology have succeeded in demonizing GM crops such that elaborate, often unnecessary over-strict regulations have been established in country after country, including the Philippines.

After the Supreme Court reversed itself on the application of the Writ of Kalikasan on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant on procedural grounds, the executive branch was prompted to modify the regulations such that while before the burden of approval rests primarily on one Department (The Department of Agriculture), the new Joint Circular on biotech crops require the concurrence of five departments (namely DA, DENR, DOST, DOH and DILG).

Now with five cooks, instead of one it is next to impossible to have any GM crops approved for cultivation.

The Bt gene in question in Bt eggplant is the same bacterial gene incorporated into GM soybean, maize, canola and cotton. After two billion hectares of safe use worldwide of Bt- derived crops, what more assurance do we need?

The beta carotene gene incorporated into Golden Rice was obtained from the yellow endosperm of corn. After centuries of safe consumption of yellow corn by humans and livestock, what more assurance do we need?

Even more telling are the costs of non-adoption. According to the studies of Dr. Cesar Quicoy of the Department of Agricultural Economics at UP Los Baños, the foregone income from the non-use of Bt eggplant is P49,802 per hectare. With 21, 000 harvested hectares every year, delay in the regulatory approval of Bt eggplant is unfairly costing our vegetable farmers P1.05 billion every year.

This is just the income loss to farmers. Not included are the public health costs from the over-use of pesticides both on the health of the farmers themselves and the consuming public.

In the case of Golden Rice and the public health burden from vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a UNICEF study in 2016 on the “Economic Burden of Malnutrition in the Philippines” attributed 1840 childhood deaths per year due to VAD. With a technological solution available in the form of Golden Rice this continuing loss of human life is unconscionable.

What are our regulators waiting for?

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).

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