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PLANTS: The truth about GM crops - as told by ISAAA

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  The truth about GM crops
SOURCE: Dawn, Pakistan
AUTHOR: Ijaz Ahmad Rao
DATE:   21.04.2007

The truth about GM crops

GM crops are environment-friendly and help the farmers manage their
cotton crops in a very effective way because there is an in-built pest
and weed control mechanism, explains Ijaz Ahmad Rao.

Biotechnology has received far greater acceptance in the discipline of
medicine, energy and industrial sector as compared to the field of food
and agriculture: the main reason behind it, is a lack of awareness in
common man.

That is why modern biotech industry is keep changing and redefining
itself during the last two decades. The use of genetic engineering in
agriculture is a complex issue that presents both potential benefits and
risks to human society and the environment, with implications at the
local and global levels. Today a heated global debate has erupted over
the use of modern crop biotechnology; Government, journalists,
communities and farmers in developing countries are deliberating about
the same challenge as those in other countries.

Many are optimistic that plant's biotechnology has come to stay, and
will be a major technology of the future - and its potential benefits
include improved crops that would be more nutritious, higher yielding,
need less pesticides, resistant to weeds, and more environmentally
sustainable while anti campaigners believes that such a technology may
cause toxicity and allergenicity to human; that it can create super
weeds while number of sprays to control pests on crops will increase
extensively; In short, crops biotechnology is harmful to our health,
environment and economics rather safe and beneficial. This is the point
where most of the journalists and a common man get confused and find
hard to balance between the information coming from two different
schools of thoughts.

Moreover, the discussion on the debate has large influence by social,
ethical, religious, scientific, political, economic, legal and cultural
dimensions so it has become more complex for journalists to position
itself on the scale - as a result of it scientists and journalists
differed in their opinions about the quality of media coverage of
agriculture biotechnology and bio-safety, socioeconomic and ethical
issues; however the main sufferer in this war are the farmers,
technology developer and public who has been dragged on a bewildered and
puzzled road; but many stakeholders still recognise and place great
importance on the role of the media in shaping public perception of
Biotech science and technology.

In March a three days media workshop on "innovative aspects of
Biotechnology and its better awareness and dissemination" was jointly
organised by Comstech, ISESCO based in Tehran, Pakistan Biotechnology
Information Centre (PABIC) as well as ISAAA.

The main objective was to ensure that members of the media, especially
those who have opportunities to write about agriculture biotechnology
are well informed about advancements in modern biotechnology.

Pakistan has several good institutions currently working on various
aspects of biotechnology. There are a number of universities; which
offer various degrees in this discipline. However, there is a serious
lack of appreciation of biotechnology at the public and industrial
levels. Coordination and exchange of information among institution and
practitioners of biotechnology is less then adequate.

Therefore, there is a need of a resource centre in Pakistan; which can
serve as a hub to disseminate information, to support the collaborative
efforts and to develop a network of institutions and individuals working
in this field; that's why The Pakistan Biotechnology Information Centre
( has been established at Latif Ebrahim Jamal National
Science Information Centre, University of Karachi under the patronage of
International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications
(ISAAA) and National Commission on Biotechnology.

The initiative of the establishment of Pakistan Biotechnology
Information Centre is an attempt to initiate multidisciplinary research
and enhance the awareness and appreciation of biotechnology at the local
and international levels.

The modern plant biotechnology, contrasting the traditional
technologies, converts and improves the performance and endows it with
various new capabilities of crop through a technology named as genetic
engineering. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring soil
bacterium that produces proteins active against certain insects^pModern
biotechnology is exemplified by the much maligned genetically engineered
Bt genes in crops like cotton, maize, soybean, canola etc; single or
double gene transferred into the plants innate ability of a soil microbe
to fight the destructive diseases and pests like, bollworms, corn borer
- saves farmers the cost of buying and applying a chemical pesticide and
can increase nutrition and production.

According to our recent Economic Survey 2005-06 measuring from a high
base of last year, the performance of agriculture has been weak - due to
a relatively poor performance of two of the four major crops, namely
cotton and sugarcane. One would like to list down some of the
predicaments our crops are faced with, which is really a perturbing
situation; Pakistan's yield per acre ranks below the average in the
world, high price of agriculture inputs like seeds, fertilisers,
pesticides etc, higher intensity of insects and pests attack, shortage
of good quality and varieties of seeds, insufficient availability of
water for irrigation.

Additionally, the absence of a proper crop insurance system or any
support system in the shape of subsidies by the government is resulting
in frustration and lack of motivation in growers to spend resource in
their fields in order to improve crop yields. At present, a major part
of arable land is cultivated by small farmers, with 86 per cent of total
number of farms comprising less than 12.5 acres. The number of small
farms is continuously increasing because of land division due to inheritance.

According to the study conducted by the Planning Commission - Pakistan
will have to increase its national average agricultural yield to ensure
food security for its growing population, which has increased to 156
million in 2006 from 34 million in 1947.

The world's average yield of wheat is around 1100 kg per acre, while in
Pakistan it is about 915 kg per acre; similarly, national average rice
yield is 1165 kg per acre against world's average of 1585 kg per acre.
In China and India, it is around 2535 kg and 1180 kg per acre,
respectively. It is worth to remember that our potential for wheat yield
ought to be over 38 million tons at an average yield of 1.85 tonnes per
acre; we are annually losing about three billion US dollar due to wheat
production inefficiencies.

Similarly, the average yield of maize in Pakistan is around 715 kg per
acre against world's average of 730 kg per acres; however, maize average
yield is 690 kg per acre in India and 2032 kg per acre in China.
Similarly, average cotton yield is around 755 kg per acre in Pakistan
against world's 725 kg per acre. Local demand from cotton and textile
industry is increasing each year in Pakistan; so cotton lint output has
been projected to increase to 21.5 million bales in 2015 from 12.4
million bales in 2006-07.

IN 2006, 22 countries grew biotech crops, 11 developing countries and 11
industrial countries, like the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India,
China, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, the Philippines, Australia,
Romania, Mexico, Spain, Colombia, France, Iran, Honduras, Czech
Republic, Portugal, Germany, and Slovakia. The global biotech crop area
continued to soar as the 250 millionth acre barrier was breached, as the
first time more than 10 million farmers in 22 countries. This
unprecedented high adoption rate is testimony to the trust and
confidence of millions of small and large farmers in crop biotechnology
in both industrial and developing countries. Source: (ISAAA)

In fact, before the arrival of modern crop biotechnology, farmers around
the globe had only an option of chemical pesticides as weapon to combat
the major pests and to manage weeds in the field, but with the passage
of time this methodology has became ineffective as many pests and weeds
showed resistance against most pesticides that were available in the
market. With the introduction of GM crops, farmers have been able to
manage their cotton crops in a very effective way because there is an in-
built pest and weeds control mechanism created in the plant to control
pests and weeds on time.

Moreover, it is almost impossible and worthless to spray during rainy
and windy period even if farmers know that their crops are under pests
attack; however, GM is the only solution to protect crops in such
circumstances due to its presence with in the plant life cycle.

It is worth knowing that in Pakistan, an estimated worth US$ 300 million
of pesticides are being used in agriculture, of which more than 80 per
cent is used on cotton especially to control Bollworm known as
"Sunides"; use of pesticide has reached over 47,550 metric tonnes
annually; due to indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals, the health of
the people living in rural areas and environment have been affected
badly at the same time the water quality of these region has found
contaminated which is harmful for human and water echo system. Although
Bt cotton also provides significant control of targeted bollworms but
supplemental foliar insecticide sprays are occasionally required to keep
other bollworms and sucking pests from causing excessive damage in Bt fields.

According to World Health Organisation; "Vitamin A deficiency affects
140 million children worldwide and causes 500,000 vitamin-A-deficient
children to become blind every year, half of them die within 12 months
by losing their sight". With its promise to combat vitamin A deficiency,
Golden Rice was quickly identified and adopted - it is genetically
modified rice which contains three genes that produce high levels of
beta carotene (Beta carotene is contained in yellow fruits like carrots
and mangoes and in vegetables like spinach).

Beta-carotene is converted in the human body to the crucially needed
vitamin A. Recently, Monsanto has granted patent licenses at no charge
to the developers of golden rice. Other crops, with other traits, are in
various phases of discovery, engineering, testing and commercialisation
- salt-resistant wheat, rice, sugarcane if successful, this would open
up a vast amount of land currently unsuitable for its production.
Similarly, fruits may not seem as important as foods like; corn, soy,
wheat and rice in many countries but they are powerful economic engines
for a large number of people around the world as in Bangladesh after
rice, papaya fruit crop plays a very important role in their daily diet;
papaya ring-spot virus (PRSV) was threatening to devastate the Hawaiian
papaya in 1990's; a PRSV-resistant cultivar was developed in GM papaya
and now successfully it has been grown there commercially since 1998.

Pakistan has large number of dedicated and highly qualified
biotechnologist, genetics, virologists and plant breeding at well-known
institutes like; National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic
Engineering (NIBGE) and Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology
(NIAB) in Faisalabad, and National Centre of Excellence in Molecular
Biology (NCEMB) at Punjab University Lahore, Centre of Agriculture,
Biochemistry and Biotechnology (CABB), University of Agriculture,
Faisalabad and Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI), Multan which
have capacity to develop new crop breed and isolate and transform desire
gene; significant amount of financial resources have been committed by
the Government of Pakistan for developing genetically modified local
cotton varieties.

So far public sector R&D centres, NIBGE and NCEMB have come forward and
submitted applications to the National Bio-safety Committee (NBC) - a
directorate being established in the Ministry of Environment to allow
them for commercialisation and field trial of their versions of Bt
Cotton. It is noteworthy that NCEMB has developed four Bt pesticidal
genes used in cotton and rice against American bollworm and rice leaf-
folder; and confined field trials of Bt basmati 370 rice were
successfully carried out at different sites near Lahore.

According to unofficial estimates, in the year 2006-07, Bt cotton
varieties have been grown at a shocking percentage. In Punjab, out of
5.60 millions acres of cotton crops, 0.23 million acres was reported as
Bt cotton while in Sindh, out of 2.3 million acres of cotton crops, 0.29
millions acres were planted with transgenic cotton varieties; which
means that last season Bt cotton varieties were grown on half a millions
acres in Pakistan.

Moreover, a subject of patents and intellectual property rights has
created strong debate in the developing countries and even in United
States and the European Union. That's why this new or modern
biotechnology has captured the attention of scientists, entrepreneurs,
financiers, policymakers, governors, and the public in general and the
pressure is on the journalists and media to illustrate factual data on
this subject. In Pakistan, we are already facing negative consequence by
not strengthening patents laws, due to which, the markets are flooded
with adulterated pesticides, inferior seed quality, and poor quality of
life saving drugs etc.

It is unfortunate for many developing countries including Pakistan to
miss the opportunities during Green Revolution; now farming methods of
late 60's are coming to an end due to water shortage, soil degradation,
loss of seedling varieties and high input costs; while we are entering
into a new phase where with very limited resources we have to deliver
multiple benefits to different stakeholders. There is no single solution
which is likely to solve our burgeoning problem in agriculture, food,
energy, health and environment. However, there is a hope that at least
some of that solution will come by the adoption of modern crop
biotechnology; as GM crops have significantly increased crops yields in
many cases; are more environmental friendly - fewer use of pesticides
and cause less soil erosion; that can help small farmers to save more
and combat poverty, because GM food is safer than conventional due to
its careful evaluations at different levels by well-known institutes so
why not our farmers must have a choice either to take GM crops side by
side non GM?

The writer is a freelance contributor

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