• Biotech crops for smallholder farmers

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    DR. WILLIAM DAR

    I had the opportunity to give an inspirational message during the awarding ceremonies of the Philippine Association of Research Managers (PhilArm) last May 24 in Baguio City. The message is fully articulated herein around the importance of biotech crops.

    There was a time when GMO crops were getting a lot of bad press because those opposed to them made a lot of noise about their alleged long-term effects on human health and the environment. But GMO or biotech crops have literally conquered the world over the past 21 years with no real evidence of its alleged negative effects on human health and the environment, when compared to traditional crops. This is good news for experts who are looking for solutions to secure the world’s food needs in the face of numerous challenges, particularly a growing world population and climate change.

    I can even say that millions of smallholder farmers worldwide have greatly benefited from adopting biotech crops, because the use of inputs can be made more efficient resulting to increased yields and more earnings.

    In fact, over a 21-year period, based on evidence, biotech crops have proven their worth in increasing productivity and reducing damage to the environment.

    Such evidence are provided by the “The Global Status of Biotech Crops in 2016” published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) that, I should mention, is headed by a Filipino, Randy Hautea. ISAAAs headquarters is at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in Los Baños.

    The report showed that for 2016, the global hectarage for biotech crops reached 185 million, or an increase of 5.4 million hectares. While that is a mere 3.0 percent increase over 2015 figure, the writing on the wall is very clear — biotech crops are now part of the solutions adopted worldwide to increase food production and give smallholder farmers the chance to earn more.

    The ISAAA report stated that more than 18 smallholder million farmers worldwide have already benefited from biotech crops since 1996.

    The cumulative hectarage of biotech crops since 1996, when the commercialization for these started, is now 2.1 billion hectares. The report stated that increased crop productivity from the use of biotech crops was 574 million metric tons valued at $167.8 billion from 1996 to 2015.

    With those developments, Nobel laureates last year released a statement supporting biotechnology like Golden Rice, and condemning those critical of the technology. I believe criticisms against biotech crops, which are all unfounded, only serve to restrict the enactment of policies favorable to the adoption of such crops in many countries.

    Also, the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a review of about 900 researches on biotech crops since 1996 and concluded that GMO and conventionally grown crops have no difference when it comes to probable risks to human health and the environment.

    Another fear attached to biotech crops is the danger that big Western corporations will end up monopolizing the technology and take control of the world’s farming sector. Although the development of GMO crops can be largely credited to large corporations, institutions like IRRI and even the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) are into developing Golden Rice, which can be a valuable tool to combat Vitamin A deficiency.

    China is also taking great interest in biotech crops with the recent corporate takeover by a Chinese national chemical company of Europe-based Syngenta, one of the leaders in biotech crops.

    The leader in the adoption of biotech crops is still the United States, with 72.9 million hectares reported as of 2016. All told, biotech crops are presently grown commercially in 26 countries, including 19 developing nations like the Philippines which has 800,000 hectares already devoted to GMO corn. Overall, the country is ranked 13th worldwide in the adoption of biotech crops.

    Although the Philippines is 13th worldwide in the adoption of biotech corn, it has failed so far to push for the adoption of the fruit borer insect resistant eggplant developed by Institute of Plant Breeding at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. The case over biotech eggplant even reached the Supreme Court that already ruled in favor of UPLB and the other parties pushing for the adoption of biotech eggplant.

    “Any future threat to the right of herein respondents or the public in general to a healthful and balanced ecology is therefore more imagined than real,” a portion of the Supreme Court ruling stated.

    Bangladesh has already devoted 700 hectares to biotech eggplant, which contains Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to fend off the fruit borer, which is traditionally dealt with by Filipino farmers by spraying pesticides.

    According to a respected colleague, Dr. Emil Q. Javier, a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP), the same Bacillus thuringiensis bacterial gene that was incorporated in biotech eggplant is the same organism found in the two billion hectares of soybean, corn, cotton and other biotech crops planted worldwide.

    I think it is the incorporation of a foreign or non-organic organism into biotech crops that prompted anti-biotech crop advocates to continue their war against the adoption of such crops. This method is the core of the genetic modification.

    But the good news is there are new methods to develop biotech crops without the unfounded scare that was unjustifiably attached to the first generation of GMO crops, particularly those containing Bt. Among these methods is “gene editing.”

    From my own research, gene editing does not require introducing any foreign organism into a plant specie or variety. Instead, the DNA of the plant or crop is “edited” to give it specific traits like resistance to certain diseases, or better adaptation to drought and water logging. I believe gene editing, which based on my research is less costly compared to genetic modification, would result to the development of more biotech crops in the future.

    What the public may not even know is that nuclear irradiation is even used to improve a variety of crops and is even employed by a number of local research institutions.

    What I am driving at is that science and technology holds the key to increasing crop production and even preserving the environment. My research indicates that in 20 years, the percentage increase in the yield of rice was 56 percent, for corn, 74 percent, livestock, 60 percent, and poultry, 89 percent. For fisheries, the increase in production in 30 years was 156 percent. The ISAAA report even credited biotech crops for saving 174 million hectares of natural forests and grasslands from being converted to farmlands.

    Also, more than 620 million active ingredients of pesticides were not used or saved because of the worldwide adoption of biotech crops from 1996 to 2015.

    Overall, biotech crops should be included in the “basket of options” for smallholder farmers to increase production, which in turn should include mechanization, irrigation, soil and water resources management, skills training and values formation.

    So thinking that biotech crops is the “Holy Grail” to increasing crop production and improving the lot of smallholder farmers is equally foolish as blocking the use of such crops.

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