Asia–Pacific Analysis: Plan for growth in biotech crops

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South-East Asian nations should follow the Philippines down the path to biotech crops for food security, argues Crispin Maslog.

Since biotechnology-derived crops were introduced in 1996, they have been adopted at an unprecedented rate, according to the 2011 annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) released earlier this year. [1]

There was a "94-fold increase from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011, making biotech crops the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture", says Clive James, chair of the Philippines-based ISAAA, who wrote the report.

Particularly striking is the phenomenally rapid adoption of biotech crops in a handful of developing countries — Argentina, Brazil, China, India, the Philippines, and South Africa — which have adopted such crops twice as quickly as developed nations. Together, these few countries now grow more than 40 per cent of the world's GM crops.

Even so, the spread of biotech crops has been patchy. In South-East Asia, only the Philippines, which reported a 20 per cent increase in biotech maize last year, and Myanmar have been quick to adopt them.

Faced with a rapidly expanding population and a shortage of agricultural land, the region should now embrace biotech crops.

Barriers to growth

There is an ongoing debate about the benefits and safety of new or improved crops developed through modern biotechnology — which includes genetic modification but also techniques such as tissue culture.

The potential benefits of biotech crops for South-East Asia cannot be ignored: they include tolerance to salinity, resistance to pests, and enhanced nutritional value. Nutritionally enhanced foods may not be a necessity in developed nations, but they can help to mitigate malnutrition in developing countries.

However, there are barriers to adopting biotech crops in this part of the world, such as a lack of proper regulations, insufficient support from policymakers, and a shortage of balanced information available to stakeholders.

Consumers want to know whether biotech foods are safe, cheaper and more nutritious. And farmers want to know whether they will improve yields. "More than 90 per cent of farmers worldwide (equivalent to over 15 million farmers) are smallholders, resource-poor and live in developing countries," says James.

One way to help smallholders reap the benefits of biotech crops is to remove the need to buy new GM seeds every year.

Bt cotton is currently the only GM crop grown commercially by smallholders in China, India, Pakistan, Colombia, Egypt and Burkina Faso. [1]

Routes to success

According to James, successful commercialisation of biotech crops depends on the development of innovative technologies, along with governments providing political support and "science-based, time- and cost-effective deregulation". It would also require government initiatives and private investments.

One bright hope is the expected commercial approval in 2013–14 of the International Rice Research Institute's (IRRI) nutritionally enriched Golden Rice in Bangladesh, China the Philippines and Vietnam, which are each currently evaluating the product with a view to adopting it.

Biotech maize developed in the Philippines is another possibility for wider adoption in neighbouring South-East Asian countries. And field trials are being carried out on priority crops in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam in preparation for commercialisation.

The Philippines is the first country in Asia to establish a regulatory framework for the adoption of GM crops. While developers are gearing up to commercialize their crops, some issues are still being discussed, such as questions of biosafety liability and redress, the possibility of unapproved genetic changes (unique DNA recombinations) to biotech products already on the market, and labelling requirements.

Any new regulations are set to follow the international standards set by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which the Philippines signed in 2000.

The rest of South-East Asia should follow suit and give policymakers enough science-based materials and training to develop regulations for GM crop research and commercialisation. There is also a need for continuous debate around biotech crops, particularly regarding the science, the benefits and the potential risks — and the media must play a role in this.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed about US$2 billion to global agriculture and nutrition programmes, including biotech crop research, and several organisations in Asia, Africa and Latin America are working to build local capacity to manage the acquisition, deployment and monitoring of biotech crops.

South-East Asian nations need to harness science to feed their growing populations, and biotech crops should be an important part of the region's agricultural policies.

Crispin Maslog

Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.