Our food security crisis will continue to deepen unless some disruptive technology applications are adopted
he import of genetically modified (GM) soybean is in the news. While soybean is an important subject, here the intention is to address the doubts about GM crops. The science part of the GM crops is straightforward, yet there are some misgivings. We know the evolutionary process that has shaped the current form of cultivated crops through a long course of domestication (mutations/ recombination/ selection and multiplication).
Selective breeding based on the principles of genetics (Mendel’s laws of inheritance, 1864) revolutionised crop production around the turn of the last century. After the discovery of double helix DNA (Watson and Crick, 1951), the science of molecular biology and genetics has progressed to the extent that precise genetic construction (genetic engineering) has become possible. However, there is no violation of the principles of genetics, population biology and evolution.
The biology of genetically modified crops is fully understood, and robust risk assessment procedures are in place. The latest form of precision genetics, called genome editing, is being exempted from the risk assessments required for traditional GM crops. The earlier version inserts genes across the phylogenetic barriers (transgenic) while genome editing modifies the endogenous genes as desired, producing a targeted mutation that mimics naturally occurring mutations. Natural/ random genetic mutation is a constant process in all living organisms.
Experimental versions of transgenic (GM) plants were available in the early 1980s. Commercial applications had begun in the mid-1990s. In 25 years, 980 million tonnes more grain has been produced with 23.4 million hectares less land under cultivation and 748.6 million kg less pesticide used. There is an average increase in net income of $112 per hectare with the adoption of GM crops.
Today, more than 70 countries are growing GM crops commercially over an estimated area of 190 million hectare. Nearly all countries in the world, excepting EU, are trading in GM commodities/ soybean and GM products.
I witnessed the first release of ice-minus GM bacteria in California during the early 1980s. The news had hit the media by storm and a lot of legal fights had followed. In the end it was accepted as an environment friendly frost control mechanism available in nature. Since 1996, the acreage under GM crops has expanded exponentially.
North America, major commodity producing countries in South America, China, India and Australia are commercial hubs of GM crops. The European Union is still opposed to their commercial cultivation but this is mostly a political preference in disguise. The GM crops are not only cheaper and safer to grow but also environment friendly.
The anti-GM lobby has raised several concerns. The cancer stories have been investigated and found unsound. The threat of chemicals as a cause of cancer is equally viable or higher with non-GM crops due to higher consumption of pesticides. Every acre of non-GM wheat we grow, receives herbicide application, which ironically is the major argument against GM-crops.
We are a country of 220 million people importing essential commodities worth $10 billion a year. It is extremely important to dispel unfounded misgivings against scientifically, environmentally and economically viable technologies. The law permits introduction of GM crops, including soybean.
The threat to biodiversity is covered in the Cartagena Protocols. Super-weeds story does have a feeble element of truth but not because of a fault on the part of transgenes. Instead, that is a case of resistance building in the organisms which happens in non-transgenic populations as well due to indiscriminate uses of chemicals. The terminator genes and accidental escapes are discussed as counter arguments without discussing the available precautions and alternate remedies. There is a case for ethics of chemical use and not for negatives of the technology.
The first demonstration in 1980s of transgenic value was strain-specific virus resistance. It was later shown to work across the strains with different gene constructs. Economically viable GM traits include insect-resistant cotton, maize, canola and soybean; cost effective weed control of herbicide resistant crops; climate resilience (heat and drought); food quality (stay fresh tomatoes); Vitamin A enriched golden rice; and salt tolerance. Golden rice deserves a special mention for Vitamin A content which is grossly deficient in rice eating populations. Zinc and iron bio-fortified GM crops are also ready for commercialisation.
Our journey of GM crops started with the haphazard/ illegal cultivation of Bt cotton around the turn of century; so did the benefits and misperceptions. India started at the same time but more systematically. In 1992, cotton production in the two countries was similar (12/13 million bales); today it stands at 40 million bales in India while ours has declined to 5 million. In addition to counterfeit seed business and bad regulation, the science piracy is also to be blamed. Despite bad technology management, it is known that the introduction of Bt cotton reduced the pesticide application.
The failure of cotton crop paved the way for expansion of acreage under corn, rice and sugarcane. The current pest challenge (Fall Army Worm) to corn makes a strong case for the introduction of GM corn. Else, there will be a collapse of corn production like cotton. Because the new pest is a near impossible problem to be controlled by pesticide application.
The soybean story is no different than the cotton and corn examples. A major yield breakthrough in corn has occurred due to the introduction of hybrid seed which can be further galvanised and made cost-effective by using GM hybrids containing a stack of useful genes.
Health and opportunity cost of malnourished (deficient calories, Vitamin A, iron, zinc) population is far greater than the potential threat of cancers. The malnourished population is predisposed to the cancer-causing chemicals and environmental hazards, while there are convincing data to support reduction in the use of chemicals with the introduction of GM crops. If GM poses any threat to our lives, we are already into it since the introduction of Bt cotton.
Our food security crisis will continue to deepen unless some disruptive technology applications are adopted. The application of ICTs, data sciences and GM crops are disruptive for good reasons. But there are regulatory and public perception problems.
We are a country of 220 million people importing essential commodities worth $10 billion a year. It is extremely important to dispel unfounded misgivings against scientifically, environmentally and economically viable technologies. The law of the land permits introduction of GM-crops including soybean. There are unfair hurdles that need to be removed. I propose an open debate in the media and advocacy for appropriate policy interventions to avoid deepening the food security crisis, by putting political preferences aside.
The writer is the vice chancellor of University of Agriculture, Faisalabad \