A publication of the Asian Development Bank No. 1    June 2008
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Scientists are trying to create varieties that will thrive despite the predicted climatic complications of global warming
A real battle is raging in the world’s laboratories, legislatures, and headlines for popular understanding and support
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Genetically Modified Foods Gain Ground

Doubts persist in Europe even as some Asian countries embrace GMO technology as a critical force for development

Photo by Getty Images

Few issues have provoked as much heated debate—and as much fear and misunderstanding—as that of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), especially as they apply to food.

Plants with altered DNA apparently do not make for appetizing fare for many. European Union (EU) nations, in particular, have mounted strong campaigns against so-called “Frankenfoods,” pitting the EU against the world’s largest producers, namely, the US, Argentina, and Canada.

On the other hand, GMO researchers continue to tout their benefits: traits could be implanted in crops to make them more resistant to pests and weed killers; drastically increase yields; and boost nutritional value, curing specific health scourges in some of the world’s poorest regions.

In spite of the raging debate, land under cultivation with genetically modified (GM) crops has grown exponentially, from a few million hectares in 1996, to 59 million hectares in 2003, to more than 80 million hectares in 2007, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

Five countries now dominate GM cultivation: the US, Canada, Argentina, People's Republic of China (PRC), and Brazil. The two most successful cases of GM foods have been soya and maize, which account for the vast majority of the land under cultivation. By some estimates, GM crops account for more than half of the world’s soya by area, a quarter of its maize, and more than 10% of its cotton. GM rice remains in the experimental phase in several countries.

And while the EU tinkers with approval standards, more than 20 countries—including the PRC, India, Iran, and South Africa—have embraced GMO technology as a crucial plank in their development platform.

That rapid growth may come at a strategic cost, say others. Chee Yoke Ling, a lawyer who sits on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture, worries that not enough long-term research has been done on the safety of GM plants for animal and human consumption.

“GM crops have been integrated into the food supply fairly quickly, but without the requisite testing,” she says. “Commercialization of GM crops occurred long before most countries—many of them developing countries—had adequate regulatory frameworks. There are the possibilities that inadequate testing before commercialization will lead to problems, not only from a health perspective, but also from environmental and socioeconomic perspectives, particularly in the longer term.”

Alternatives for the Future

With world population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, the increasing appetite for meat in parts of the developing world, and financially seductive alternative uses for grains—such as ethanol—some scientists say GM crops are no longer an option; they are a necessity to avoid widespread famine.

“A Green Revolution pace of progress is once again needed,” observes Jonathan Crouch, Director of the Genetic Resources and Enhancement Unit of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). “All possible innovations will be required to achieve this... GM technologies are one of many important contributions.”

One hectare of paddy in Asia currently produces enough rice to feed 27 people; 50 years from now that same area will have to feed 43 people, according to estimates. Ninety percent of the estimated 633 million tons of rice produced per year worldwide is grown and consumed in Asia, where 2 billion rely on rice for up to 70% of their daily calories, figures from various international agencies show.

Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila point out that new paddy lands are scarce, and doubt conventional methods of production can be improved to meet burgeoning demand.

IRRI plans to use modern genetic techniques to boost yields by more than 50%, while making certain traditional varieties of rice stay genetically pure, both for cultural and scientific reasons, explains Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, head of IRRI’s T. T. Chang Genetic Resources Center.

“As new pests and diseases develop, able to attack previously resistant modern varieties, we have to revert to the old varieties to find different resistance genes,” he explains. Likewise, “as climate changes we will need to seek different forms of adaptation to the new climate from old varieties.”

Insect-resistant varieties of GM rice are currently being grown in test plots in the PRC. Already results indicate that the new strains produce higher yields, consume less pesticide, and are healthier than non-GM rice grown there, but the Chinese government has yet to approve GM rice for general consumption.

Other strains, specifically “Golden Rice,” are being engineered to be rich in iron, zinc, and Vitamin A to combat malnutrition in poorer areas.

Source: www.cropscience.org

GM Rice, Globally Warmed

In addition to solving today’s problems—principally the estimated 40% in annual losses due to pests, weeds, and diseases—scientists are trying to create varieties that will thrive despite the predicted climatic complications of global warming.

Researchers at IRRI are also experimenting with a gene that allows Indian rice to survive being underwater for several weeks, cross-breeding it with a variety of rice popular in flood-prone Bangladesh. The resulting strain may yield up to 50% more rice when flooded; that is in addition to erasing losses caused by flooding, which damages about 20 million of the 150 million hectares of rice cultivated each year.

Another strain represents the most scientifically ambitious project to date by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. It involves changing the genetic makeup of rice so that it grows better in higher temperatures with less water and nitrogen. The challenge has researchers scanning more than 6,000 varieties of rice to see which ones would be best for changing their method of photosynthesis, the process by which green plants produce simple carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, using energy absorbed from the sun.

The process has already worked for maize, unlocking tremendous yields. It is hoped that same technology can be applied to rice, then wheat, sweet potatoes, and other plants that feed the world’s poor.

Seeking Safety in Tradition

For all the promise that GMOs hold, the world’s leading environmental nongovernmental organizations—Greenpeace, WWF (the global conservation organization), and Friends of the Earth—are not convinced. While maintaining that the risks associated with GMOs have not been adequately investigated, they contend that most scarcities can be solved with traditional farming practices. Farmers have been selectively breeding rice successfully for centuries, they say. The natural process had led to the development of as many as 140,000 varieties, according to Greenpeace, which have developed to resist diseases, pests, and drought without genetic tampering.

GMO opponents have been able to capitalize on some high-profile cases to bolster their position. The timing of the incidents—two in the same year or in the middle of a globalization summit, for example—has also played a role in fueling coverage and opposition.

In 2000, a variety of GM maize called StarLink, designed by Aventis exclusively as an animal feed, was found to have contaminated taco shells in the United States. After pulling dozens of products nationally, the company spent an estimated $100 million to buy the entire US harvest.

That same year trade sanctions reared their head again when conventional non-GM rapeseed oil, imported from Canada and sold in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Sweden by seed company Advanta, was found to be contaminated with GM rapeseed oil.

In the summer of 2006, a US rice strain, which was not approved for human consumption, found its way into the global food chain, along with illegal seeds sold in the PRC. Farmers sued the developer, Bayer CropScience, claiming their crops were contaminated, according to news reports.

The world’s largest rice processor immediately announced it would stop buying US rice, and the EU and Japan banned US rice imports. The world’s largest exporters of rice, Thailand and Viet Nam, have also banned GM rice for good.

An Unlikely Ally

But genetic modification found an unlikely ally when the cofounder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, came out to publicly defend GM crops in a 2004 essay for The American Enterprise.

He criticized environmentalists for adopting a zero-tolerance policy on GMOs, despite compelling scientific evidence of health, economic, and environmental benefits, projecting that biotech might turn out to be “the Waterloo for Greenpeace.”

“The campaign of fear now waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy… Hollywood-style fictions about ‘killer weeds’ and ‘Frankenfoods’… and a complete lack of respect for science and logic,” he wrote. “The real benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the hypothetical and sometimes contrived risks claimed by detractors.”

He went on to blame his “old Greenpeace compatriots” for “misinformation and speculation” that lend credence to the time-consuming “Byzantine regulatory system” countries employ to approve even exhaustively tested GM foods for importation.

Governmental Issues

“It is interesting that GM cheese, chickens, and vaccines do not appear to attract the same level of controversy,” says CIMMYT’s Jonathan Crouch. “However, it seems clear that attitudes are slowly changing as huge areas of GM crops are being cultivated across… the world, and as the duration of GM cultivation increases without major disaster.”

The most serious barrier facing adoption of even the most stringently tested GM technologies has been the unwillingness or inability of the governments of some poorer nations to turn scientific discoveries into development solutions, according to José Falck-Zepeda, a fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute who specializes in the economics and socioeconomic impact of biotechnology in agriculture.

Donor organizations and countries often help fund scientific discovery, Falck-Zepeda explains, but not the cost—ranging from a couple of hundred thousand to a few million dollars—of getting products through countries’ regulatory hurdles and into farmers’ hands.

“I call that the Green Revolution mentality. They think: you build it (the GMO) and it will flow magically to the farmers... That’s not what’s happening,” he explains. Everything from patent litigation to cumbersome bureaucracy increases the cost of applying GM technologies, putting them out of reach of the world’s poor farmers.

As a result, large agricultural conglomerates are the only entities with the resources to shepherd the development of crops from conception to implementation, and they are willing to do that only in markets where their investment can be protected—meaning large-scale farming operations in countries with enforceable patent laws.

“(Donors) should pay more attention and put more resources into solving a lot of these governmental issues,” Falck-Zepeda says.

The Private Sector Role

Crouch remains hopeful that governments will adapt to allow private industry to profitably solve pressing large-scale crop issues. “We should not underestimate the power of national governments to legislate in ways to ensure that the private sector makes substantial contributions to national economic development and improvements in individual livelihoods,” he adds. “However, for marginal/resource-poor cropping systems we will need to seek an alternative model… often through public–private partnerships.”

Still, the EU seems unlikely to significantly temper its exacting regimens for approving GMOs. “Richer countries generally create pressure to improve the quality of food, not the quantity,” explains Falck-Zepeda, citing the consumer predilection for organic foods with generally lower yields.

GM’s supporters have their work cut out for them. A real battle is raging in the world’s laboratories, legislatures, and headlines for popular understanding and support. Patrick Moore thinks he knows what it will take for his side to prevail: “The biotechnology sector needs to ramp up its communications program, and to get a lot more aggressive in explaining the issues to the public through the media. Nothing less will turn the tide in the battle for the minds, and hearts, of people around the world.”