By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan
Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you are a thousand miles from the corn field – Dwight D Eisenhower (34th President of the United States of America)
Act of terror to create fear, motivated by religious, political and ideological goals is called terrorism. And this is exactly what environmental NGOs are doing. When Michael Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace realised that waging a war against a potential technology is against humanity, he defected from Greenpeace while still having environmental issues close to his heart. Another Greenpeace dropout is Mark Lynas who recently made a public apology at a conference in University of Oxford for his anti-biotech movements in 1990s.
The technology that irks environmentalists is genetic engineering or genetic modification, especially so if it is employed in the field of agriculture. Never mind that thousands of recombinant drugs are made from genetically modified microbes.
If we scrutinise all the plants that produce our foods today, none of them are free from genetic modification. Little do we know that all plants have undergone gene evolution either naturally or guided by man. Teosinte, the origin of corn looks nothing like corn, so are the wild plants where wheat, broccoli, tomato and carrot originated. Hundreds of years of selection and cross breeding has resulted in the food crops and plants that are cultivated today for commercial purposes.
Imagine how genes have been reshuffled, deleted, added and silenced to produce these new varieties. Yet, there are no issues or public outcry about them as they are perceived to be natural.
On the other hand, modern biotechnology that involves inserting specific genes into plants with tremendous level of precision causes aversion, in spite of hundreds of tests and a stringent regulatory regime.
The most common GM crops globally are corn, soybean and cotton and others include sugarbeet, alfalfa, papaya, squash, poplar, tomato and sweet pepper. To date, 17.3 million farmers are growing GM crops in 28 countries on over 170.3 million hectares of land.
Most GM crops in the market are inserted with a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium that has been used or is still being used as biological control by organic farmers. The gene codes for a protein that is toxic towards very specific insects and on other hand is harmless to non-target species including human beings.
The major traits of GM crops are insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance, while others in the pipeline are tolerant to drought, salinity and frost which is deemed extremely important with in the light of climate change.
Safety: The safety of GM crops is established through compositional analyses to verify any changes in nutritional and anti-nutritional composition, biochemical characterisation to analyse any new proteins in terms of its digestibility, toxicity, and allergic activities. Feeding trials are conducted to detect unexpected changes on bioefficacy and bioavailability. Grain compositional analysis is carried out on proximates, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, fiber, vitamins and secondary metabolites. Field trials are also conducted to ensure the crops do not cause any environmental or ecological damage.
In fact, GM crops/foods are the most tested food in human history and the regulatory cost takes up the bulk of GM seed research.
Economic Impact: There have been substantial net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $10.8 billion in 2009 and $64.7 billion for the fourteen year period from 1996-2009. Of the total farm income benefit, 57% ($36.6 billion) has been due to yield gains, with the balance arising from reductions in the cost of production. Two thirds of the yield gain is derived from adoption of insect resistant crops and the balance from herbicide tolerant crops.
Environmental Impact: Biotech crops have contributed to significantly reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices – in 2009, this was equivalent to removing 17.7 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 7.8 million cars from the road for one year. This is achieved through the reduction in the use of caustic agrochemicals. As crops are imbedded with genes that produce natural insecticidal compound, it is akin to vaccination that requires no external spray of chemicals.
Biotech crops have reduced pesticide spraying (1996-2009) by 393 million kg (-8.7%) and as a result decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops by 17.1%.
If GM technology had not been available to the (14 million) farmers using the technology in 2009, maintaining global production levels at the 2009 levels would have required additional plantings of 3.8 million ha of soybeans, 5.6 million ha of corn, 2.6 million ha of cotton and 0.3 million ha of canola. This total area requirement is equivalent to about 7% of the arable land in the US, or 24% of the arable land in Brazil, thus making GM technology a land-saving technology that conserves biodiversity.
While the GM crops in the market contributes towards poverty alleviation, increased yield, and reduction of environmental footprints, what is in the pipeline has more direct benefits to consumers. Rice rich in vitamin A, cassava enriched with minerals and vitamins, oils with healthier lipid profile are some of the crops in the waiting for commercialisation. The Golden Rice which is rich in pro-vitamin A would benefit millions of hard core poor who suffer from irreversible blindness but it has not stopped critics from halting its commercialisation.
To date, not a single health hazard has been reported due to GM crops/foods and billions have consumed it over a period of 17 years. This could serve as the biggest feeding trial involving all sectors of global population. The E.coli outbreak in the Europe in 2011 originated from an organic farm yet it was swept under the carpet and dozens die in the USA every year after consuming organic produce but this is never made a big issue. Just imagine one single health hazard from GM foods and there will be a global moratorium. The double-standard in evaluating GM foods has to stop and assumptions should be based on scientific data.
Rising population, environmental degradation, depletion of resources, and climate instability are contributing towards food insecurity. GM technology could serve as an effective tool to address these challenges if employed in combination with existing conventional techniques and proper agronomic practices should scientific terrorism rest in peace and science is allowed to prevail.
(As published in InfoMed, July 2013 edition: www.Infomed.com.my)[divider]
Mahaletchumy Arujanan is the Executive Director of Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) and Editor-in-Chief of The Petri Dish – the first science newspaper in Malaysia. She has a degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology from Universiti Putra Malaysia, Masters in Biotechnology and PhD in science communication from University of Malaya. Maha won the 2010 Third World Academy of Science Regional Prize for Public Understanding of Science for East, Southeast Asia and Pacific Region. She has been actively involved in public understanding of biotech since 2003 where she enjoys excellent working relationships with various ministries, government agencies, research institutes, public and private universities, industries, and various international organizations. Maha serves on a number of committees, both local and international, serving as member of university advisory panels, project evaluation committees, animal ethics committees, and public awareness working groups. Maha is also known for her non-traditional approaches in communicating biotechnology such fashion show and carnivals. She has published chapters, papers and articles on science/biotech communication and biotechnology development.