April 07, 2014
Z M Siddiqui
Science and technology skeptics have always rejected scientific break-throughs in the history of human progress. In recent times we have seen these skeptics oppose polio vaccinations, DNA testing as evidence in criminal cases, and the use of biotechnology in the fields of agriculture and medicine. Lately, a campaign has been launched against the use of biotechnology in agriculture, although many developed and developing countries are using it to increase their yield in an environmentally friendly way. If the skeptics demanded proper rules and regulations for introducing biotechnology in agriculture, it would have been understandable, but their opposition is based on hearsay, unscientific arguments and myths.
Let us review these myths against scientific and economic realities.
Myth: GM crops will create a monopoly of big multinationals
Reality: In Pakistan’s highly competitive seed market, farmers are in control by deciding whether to purchase the products or not. They tend to buy seeds that bring them substantial benefits in terms of yields and crop management. Pakistani farmers are not fools, as presumed by NGOs. They can’t be forced to buy the seeds of big multinationals. Technology not useful to the farmers concerned can never be successfully marketed anywhere in the world. Pakistan is no exception in this regard. Farmers always only buy seeds developed to suit their local agronomic and environmental conditions and based on their experience.
It is also a fact that today Pakistani cotton farmers are suffering due to the non-availability of quality seeds of Bt cotton, the only biotech crop approved for commercial cultivation in Pakistan. Had this technology been introduced in Pakistan through formal channels, Bt cotton seeds would not have been an issue and Pakistan would have reaped the benefits by getting bumper crops. More importantly it is the farmers’ right to choose from the latest research methods available to them. So, anti-biotech campaigners’ propaganda only favours those who are benefiting from the status quo. According to a study conducted by Dr Neil Forrester, Pakistan is lagging behind by 6-8 million bales of cotton production owing to various challenges.
Myth: Patented seeds are not good for Pakistan’s agriculture
Reality: At a time when the availability of quality seeds to farmers has become a serious issue, Pakistan needs patented seeds to revolutionize its agriculture sector and increase production. Today, Pakistan desperately needs a professional seed industry, where there are preset qualification criteria for a seed company, R&D, standards for seed quality. In any industry, IP rights are the cornerstone for innovation and progress.
In the next 40 years, the agriculture industry will need to expand food production to meet the needs of 9 billion people in the world. Achieving this requires a continuous pipeline of new technologies that will help farmers grow their crops. Strong IP protection will enable the plant science industry to invest in the R&D required for producing these tools.
Myth: GM crops are not natural
Reality: Genetically modified crops are no different to conventional crops. The scientific truth is that biotechnology is just a refinement of breeding techniques that have been used to improve plants for thousands of years. It is only an evolution of traditional agricultural methods; an extension of traditional breeding. This technology is just a precise science, so scientists are able to isolate a specific gene to make exact changes to a crop.
Most existing genetically modified crops have been developed to improve yield through the introduction of resistance to plant diseases or of increased tolerance of herbicides. In the future, genetic modification could be aimed at altering the nutrient content of food, reducing its allergenic potential, or improving the efficiency of food production systems. There is scientific consensus that GM crops are as natural as their conventional counterparts.
Myth: GM crops are not safe
Reality: Scientists around the world agree that the risks associated with crop plants developed using biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using traditional breeding methods. In meeting stringent food safety requirements and standards, biotech foods are among the most thoroughly tested foods available. No other food crops in history – including foods currently available on grocers’ shelves – have been tested and regulated as thoroughly as have foods developed through biotechnology.
The safety of these foods is reviewed by regulatory agencies around the world according to international safety assessment guidelines spanning multiple years and systematic testing. In contrast, when other foods (crop varieties, animal breeds or micro-organisms) are developed by traditional breeding methods, they are usually not subject to specific risk or safety assessments by national authorities or through international standards. There is not one proven or suspected case of “acute or chronic” effects from GMO consumption.
Myth: GM crops are failing; there are crop disasters around the world
Reality: More and more farmers around the world are turning to biotechnology so they can grow plants that yield more per acre and reduce production costs while being resistant to disease and insect pests. Data shows that GM crop cultivation is growing. “Global biotech crop hectarage has increased from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to over 175 million hectares in 2013. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) during the last 18-year period more than a 100-fold increase of commercial biotech crop hectarage has been reported.”
According to ISAAA report, more than 90 per cent, or 16.5 million, of farmers planting biotech crops are small and resource-poor. Of the countries planting biotech crops, eight are industrial countries and 19 are developing countries. For the second year, developing countries planted more hectares of biotech crops than industrialized countries, representing confidence and the trust of millions of risk-averse farmers around the world that have experienced the benefits of these crops. Nearly 100 percent of farmers who try biotech crops continue to plant them year after year, the report noted.
Myth: Biotech crops can’t coexist with conventional crops
Reality: It is not true that biotech crops can’t coexist with conventional crops. Coexistence of different crops, production systems and pest management systems in agriculture and the supply chain is not new, nor is it unique to plant biotechnology. Different agricultural production systems have been successfully implemented in proximity to one another for many years with no impact on organic, conventional, or biotech farmers.
It’s a myth that biotech farmers are negatively impacting organic farmers. In fact, organic production continues to grow in areas where there are high rates of biotech adoption. Agri-biotechnology has environmental benefits as well because biotech crop varieties require less cultivation and fewer pesticide applications, thereby saving fuel and reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the air. This also improves soil health and water retention.
Myth: GM seeds are costly
Reality: It is true that genetically modified seeds are a bit costly when compared with conventional seeds but if we look at the socio-economic benefits they deliver to farmers they don’t seem expensive at all. Rising adoption of GM seeds by millions of farmers, especially resource poor farmers in developing countries across the globe is testimony to the fact that GM seeds are not expensive because they yield much higher when compared with conventional counterparts, thereby increasing profitability. Crop biotechnology has delivered an unparalleled level of farm income benefit to the farmers, as well as providing considerable environmental benefits to both farmers and citizens of countries where the technology is used.
The writer is a communication consultant.