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Despite pest and pricing worries, many Asian farmers welcome GM crops. Jia Hepeng heard their stories during a farmers’ exchange programme.
Edwin Paraluman remembers the scepticism of fellow farmers when he introduced genetically modified (GM) corn to his small, three-hectare farm in General Santos City, in the Philippines, five years ago.
"But even in its early growth, the anti-insect effect of the GM crop encouraged me to persist," said Paraluman, adding that the dramatically increased crops have stunned other farmers.
Paraluman was talking during the Asian Regional Farmers’ Exchange Programme, which took place in the Philippines from late August to early September this year. The programme involved nearly 40 farmers from China, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
GM technology has always attracted scepticism, resistance and controversy, yet its use continues to grow in many parts of the world. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the total area of approved GM crops in 2006 was 102 million hectares in 22 countries — a 13 per cent rise on the previous year.
Paraluman is one of the millions of Asian farmers who are reaping the benefits. "I know there are many debates about GM technologies, but what’s true is that it has increased harvests and seed qualities, and helps us improve our life," he said.
While governments and environmental groups argue over the safety and morality of GM crops, many farmers in Asia are quietly working with scientists to overcome minor problems they are experiencing with this burgeoning technology. But others worry about how higher yields will affect market prices.
The most common genetic crop modification is to add a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (often shortened to Bt). This expresses a toxin inside the crop that kills larvae of Lepidoptera — a large insect family that includes pests like bollworms and stem borers. Scientists have proved the modification is not harmful to mammals, including humans.
Zu Maotang, now president of the Farmer’s Association of Gaobeidian City in the northern Chinese province of Hebei, was possibly the first Chinese farmer to plant a GM crop.
"My embracing of GM cotton is a result of the endless frustrations in fighting bollworms," Zu said.
By the mid 1990s, many Chinese cotton farmers could no longer control the worm with conventional pesticides. "The resistance was so strong that the adult pests could even swim in the pesticide solution," Zu recalled.
He took the problem to the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), where he was introduced to Guo Sandui, a leading biotechnologist.
GM cotton in Hebei Province,
|Credit: Zu Maotang|
"At that time, Guo was eager to find someone good at farming to help him test his Bt cotton, which he had just developed in the lab," said Zu.
China didn’t regulate GM field trials at the time, and Guo planted the GM cotton in Zu’s yard. They did it secretly, fearing the new crop might upset neighbouring farmers and be damaged by local government officials.
"When I first witnessed bollworms dying after eating the cotton leaves, I was excited and amazed, thinking the risk [of trialling GM cotton] was worth taking," said Zu.
The government approved Guo’s Bt cotton two years later, in 1997. That year, Zu doubled his cotton crop with Guo’s GM seed, using much less pesticide and labour. And he had become a local expert on GM cotton seed.
Not everyone is convinced. Divine Reyes, a Philippine farmer who works for the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines, worries about possible pest resistance to Bt corn.
"We have not observed any resistance, but as all of the farms nearby are now planting the GM corn, we must be very careful," Reyes told SciDev.Net.
Zhang Bingcheng, a farmer in Hubei Province, in southern China, has already experienced problems with GM cotton.
After adopting Bt cotton in 2000, he used 80 per cent less pesticide, but bollworms still survived in the cotton before it blossomed.
Experts explained that near the blossoming period, the plant expresses the Bt gene less, producing less toxin.
Zhang had to resume spraying with pesticide, though to a lesser extent than with non-Bt cotton. But the spraying means that farmers must stay on their farms for the whole year, rather than going to cities for part of the year for high-paid work as is common.
A new GM cotton variety that uses a gene from cowpea could overcome the problem, as the gene is expressed throughout the crops’ growth. But it’s not the only hitch Zhang has faced.
He also encounters a moth-like pest called Fabricius (Prodenia litura) that the Bt toxin doesn’t kill.
Fabricius belongs to the Lepidoptera family, but often breeds in decayed leaves, where the toxin has faded. Fabricius can eat cotton buds, reducing crops.
Zhang now uses a bio-pesticide, which uses a virus to kill the moth but not other insects, to tackle the problem. "The moth doesn’t cause as much harm as bollworms, but without a complete solution, our confidence in agricultural biotechnologies could be nibbled," Zhang told SciDev.Net.
And Zu has also met an unexpected problem in using Bt cotton.
|A mirid bug crawls on cotton
|Credit: Zu Maotang|
The dramatic reduction in bollworms coincided with outbreaks of other pests, especially mirid bugs.
Agricultural scientists reassured Zu that increased insecticide spraying in the early stages of the mirid bug life-cycle could deal with the insects, but he said that many of his fellows farmers were startled when the bugs appeared, because they had been convinced that Bt-cotton was insect-free cotton.
Despite the setbacks, Zu still believes in the GM crop he helped create, adding "Perhaps scientists will soon identify a gene against mirids."
Compared with Zu’s optimism, Kraisorn Kunluechakorn, a farmer and small seed dealer from Thailand, is more cautious, saying, "Despite the benefits we have seen here [in the Philippines], we would not lobby the government for GM crops. Who knows if it’s good or bad in the long term?"
So far, Thailand has not approved any commercial GM crop.
One of Kunluechakorn’s concerns is that big companies control GM seed prices.
Victor Alpuerto, of agricultural biotech giant Monsanto in the Philippines, says Monsanto GM corn seed for one hectare costs US$50. He says the huge cost of developing the seeds justifies the high price. But, to Chinese farmers, it seems unreasonably expensive.
Li Zhanshuang, a farmer from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, thinks lack of competition in the Philippines maintains the higher seed price. He explains that in China, dozens of seed companies sell GM cotton seeds, so Monsanto can’t keep their prices high due to competition.
Paraluman says that Filipino farmers also worry that higher yields could drive prices down. He has been organising farmers with GM crops into groups, so that they can join forces to negotiate seed, fertilizer and pesticide prices, and sell their produce at an agreed price.
Potential social benefits
Conversely, scientists are worried that the potential for higher profits from some GM crops may hinder the uptake of other low-profit but high-value GM varieties.
Gerard Barry, of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), says ‘golden rice’ could be such a case. This GM crop carries genes to make rice produce beta-carotene — which the body can turn into vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is a serious nutritional problem for many poor people in developing countries, and can cause blindness in childhood. But such people cannot afford a more expensive rice.
|Rows of cotton bollworm eggs|
When the Regional Farmers’ Exchange Programme visited IRRI, Barry asked the farmers, "If the golden rice is commercialised, who among you will plant it? It might not bring big profits, as poor people cannot pay the increased price for the added nutrition and it has to rely on the government purchase [price]."
After a short silence, Zhang stood up. "I will," he said. "The poor nutrition is first of all suffered by our farmers. When agricultural biotechnology can help us shake this off, our farmers have the responsibility to take it up."