Climate change to spur dev’t of GM crops in Asia

BEIJING (MindaNews/11 October) — Technological developments in industrial agriculture are expected to continue at a rapid rate throughout Asia as climate change and a rapidly growing population propel new developments in agriculture, particularly in relation to genetically modified (GM) crops.

Agricultural researchers say new technologies are likely to be more readily embraced in Asian countries, which are home to 60 percent of the world’s population. Technical specialists are confident that they can develop genetically modified crops, which improve crop yields, disease resistance and are safe for human consumption and the natural environment

“The agricultural situation in China and other Asian countries is quite different from that in the EU and the USA. I expect that GM technologies will be adopted at a much more rapid rate than before due to issues surrounding food security, which aren’t likely to be solved through traditional methods,” Dafang Huang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said.

Biotechnologists say they are being pushed to develop genetically modified solutions to improve crop yields and disease resistance in the face of a growing food shortage in the region. Drought-tolerant crop species and pesticide-resistant crops are being held up as possible solutions to feed the growing population which will require a vastly increased amount of food.

Dafang said he expects governments in the region, and particularly in China, to support the research, development and cultivation of GM crops to feed their growing population, which now exceeds 1.3 billion people in China alone.

“I believe the Chinese government will continue to support GM developments, as it has done for more than 20 years. We have established a regulatory system for GM biosafety, based on the latest scientific research, which has been in place since 1996,” he said.

In China, there are at least 10 varieties of GM crops that have been certified for field release, including new species of rice, corn, cotton, soybean, rape, and potato to name a few.

“The research of GM grain crops is a work in progress but hasn’t been commercialized at this stage,” Dafang said.

China is currently the sixth largest producer of GM crops in the world but farmers have yet to test the export market.

“I think we will produce GM food mainly for the Chinese people, rather than for export. This situation probably won’t change for a long period of time,” he said.

Biotechnology experts in Asia, who met at a forum in Jakarta, Indonesia, in July, have urged governments throughout the region to support the cultivation of GM crops to ensure adequate food production and also to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

They said traditional farming methods are very carbon-intensive and rely on the extensive use of tractors and other earthmoving equipment.

Dr. Paul Teng, the dean of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said biotechnology solutions are needed to improve the traits of agricultural crops, enabling them to thrive in a changing climate.

However, many people remained unconvinced about the merits of genetically modified crops, warning that there are potentially harmful side effects which have yet to be properly assessed.

In the Philippines, a lawmaker has dismissed the untested GM crops, saying that organic farming is still the safest and most natural method. He noted that even biotechnology experts say that it is impossible to provide assurances of absolute-zero risk with the crops because of the inadequacy of current screening methods in relation to toxicity and allergenicity.

Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño said organic farming has long been proven to be very effective in agriculture, and does not require any synthetic fertilizers or harmful pesticides. Proponents of GM crops dismiss this view as old-fashioned.

“Based on a vast amount of evaluation data, so far there is no scientific evidence that show GM crops to be harmful to human health or the environment,” Dafang said.

Wang Yuedan, an associate professor at the Department of Immunology in the School of Basic Medicine at Peking University said he could not say categorically that promoting organic farming is preferable to cultivating GM crops.

However, he cautioned that GM crops needed to be further studied to ensure they were safe for human consumption.

Associate Professor Wang said that despite the absence of evidence that GM crops were harmful to human health, he remained confused about the government policy on GM crops in China.

He said safety certificates had been issued for several GM crops, including BT transgenic rice, but on the official website, GM crops were forbidden from being used at the Beijing Olympic Games or the Shanghai World Exhibition.

“So I am a little confused about the policy relating to GM crops in China,” he said. “Based on the Chinese GMO regulations and the current international rules, I think the Chinese government needs to inspect and monitor the planting and circulation of GM crops.” (Darwin Wally T. Wee/MindaNews, with Souksakhone Vaenkeo, Laos)

[The authors are working in China under a journalism exchange programme run by the Norwegian Fredskorpset organization.]