Vol. 5 Num 312 Tue. April 12, 2005  

Biotechnology and GM crops

In many countries, the debate surrounding the use of biotechnology in agriculture is often associated with genetically modified (GM) crops. Hence there is a wide misconception that the only application of biotechnology is in the development of such transgenic crops. However the scope of biotechnology is widespread: in Industrial Biotechnology (microbial fermentation, metabolite production etc.); in Environmental Biotechnology (to reduce contaminations, to alleviate pollution, to recover habitats from oil spillage etc.); in Medical Biotechnology (pharmaceutical industries, gene therapies, etc.); and finally in Agricultural Biotechnology (conventional breeding, tissue culture, micropro-pagation, molecular breeding or marker assisted selection, GM crops, plant disease diagnostics, etc).

What is GM?
The genetic makeup of an organism has been continuously altered throughout history through careful breeding and selective pressure applied by traditional farmers. Genetic Modification or GM uses the modern day recombinant DNA technology in doing the same.

Why make GM crops?
However, this cross breeding is limited to same or very closely related species. It also takes a long time to achieve desired results and frequently undesired characteristics get transferred -- such as lower yields, poorer taste, etc. Further difficulties arise when the characteristics of interest do not exist in related species, e.g. flood tolerant gene does not exist in jute species, but is present in Arabidopsis, a distant plant type. However modern biotechnology, through genetic modification, may allow us to develop flood tolerant variety of jute by transferring to it only the specific flood tolerant gene from Arabidopsis. Similar examples can be given for other crops.

The benefits of GM plants have been clearly seen in many countries. These include -- Higher crop yields: As a result of which GM crop area has grown 35 fold between 1996 and 2002, adopted by 6 million farmers, of whom 5 million were small resource-poor farmers.

Reduction in farm costs: BT cotton (a popular transgenic crop) has reduced the use of insecticide in India by 70 per cent and has saved farmers about $45 per hectare in every crop cycle. Increase in farm profit (for both farmers and industries): It is estimated over half of the land in the Indian subcontinent periodically loses crops to drought because farmers cannot afford to pay for irrigation. Introduction of drought-resistant rice developed through GM technology would greatly reduce crop losses, increasing both farmers' profits and the value of the country's rice trade.

Improvement in health and environment: Higher yield GM crops would mean using less land and hence less conversion of natural habitats into farmland. GM crops also require less pesticides and insecticides causing less damage to the environment. Also low-till farming is most beneficial for birds and wildlife, which is made possible by cultivating GM crops.

Increase in the nutritional value of food: GM crops can help fight diseases such as night blindness and kwashiorkor; improve food quality by increasing its shelf life; help to enhance the immune system; and significantly reduce the residual insecticide and pesticide in comparison to crops from traditional practices. Recently cooking oil from genetically modified Canola has become popular in many countries including Bangladesh for its low level of saturated fat, and hence lower risk of cardio vascular diseases.

Decrease in the use of insecticides and pesticides: Annually, approximately $32 billion is spent on traditional pesticides. In 1997, farmers who planted BT cotton used 300,000 fewer gallons of insecticides.

Produce crops resistant to salinity, drought, cold, flood, etc: Needless to mention that these would bring enormous benefit Bangladesh, for instance by help fight drought in its northern districts or help grow rice along its coastal regions.

Undergoes strict quality assurance test and hence a safer choice: Crops improved through biotechnology have undergone more safety and environmental testing than any crop varieties in history, and have been produced and consumed by humans and animals in millions of tons around the world for years. There is, to date, not a single solitary confirmed case of human or animal illness or disease associated with a biotech crop.

To feed the future population: At present, we face an increasing shortage of water and good agricultural land While there may be food surpluses in some areas, we need to treble food production in the next 50 years to feed 3 billion extra people.

Are GM crops appropriate for developing countries?
In 2003 GM crops have been planted in over 70 million hectares in 18 countries. Nearly five million small farmers in China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Morocco grew genetically modified cotton to protect against boll weevil. In China, this saved farmers as much as $500 per hectare, mainly through a 60-80 per cent reduction in the use of pesticides. In KwaZulu, 92 per cent of cotton farmers, mainly women, now grow GM cotton, many of whom have seen their becoming income nearly double, primarily because savings on pesticides greatly exceed the extra cost of the seeds. In India, due to the absence of legalisation, a black market for GM cotton seed came into existence pursuant to the popular demand from the farmers.

The story of cotton shows actual financial benefit, here and now, mainly to small farmers in the developing world, contrary to the allegation frequently made that agricultural biotechnology only promotes industrial farming. But the greatest contribution of GM technology is yet to come. China spends over $100 million a year on plant science and has developed 141 different types of GM crops, 65 of which are already in field trials. In India, too, biotechnology flourishes. Most research is on staple crops grown by ordinary farmers. Salt-resistant and drought-resistant crops are also being developed, which can be cultivated in large tracts of land currently considered infertile.

Research on GM plants will bring particular benefits to health. Some have already been achieved through the reduced use of pesticides. In South Africa, cases of burns and sickness from agricultural chemicals have fallen from 150 a year to a dozen, chiefly because GM cotton, which is currently being used, is sprayed only twice a season instead of more than eight times, which was required by the conventional variety.

Yet some of those dedicated to helping people in the developing world ignore these potential benefits. They even oppose the development of "golden rice" containing pro-vitamin A as part of a staple diet, which can help redress the vitamin A deficiency associated with the deaths of more than a million children every year, according to the World Health Organisation. This deficiency is also the single most important cause of blindness in about half a million children annually.

I would like to stress that GM crops should not be considered under one blanket, but should be regarded on a case to case basis. Only those which suit our national interest should be developed, especially where traditional breeding has not been successful.

Developing countries are making real progress in genetic engineering, and our neighboring countries India, Pakistan, and China have already started developing their own GM crops. In agriculture based countries like Bangladesh, where food prices directly affect the incomes of majority of the population, the potential benefits of GM crops cannot be ignored.

The population of Bangladesh is growing, but its arable land is decreasing. To ensure the food security in future, now is the time for the government and the scientists to develop its technology using the available modern tools. We should now be united in formulating a strategy on how to reap maximum benefits from this novel technology. Let our prejudice or our political interest not hinder in appreciating and developing our own GM technology.

No one argues that all problems can be solved by the magic GM wand. But the question is: Can GM crops help? No one is insisting to jump to the GM technology blindly. There are pitfalls as with any other technology. But in this era of fast paced technological progress we cannot afford to deprive ourselves and fall behind in innovations. Blind opposition to GM crops will only be a triumph of dogma over reason.

Nadim Ashraf is Research Scientist, Department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology University of Dhaka.