Climate change, which has been in the news lately as it has been cited as one possible cause of the super typhoon Yolanda, is touted to be “a major challenge for agriculture and food security.” That’s according to Dr. Randy A. Hautea, global coordinator and Southeast Asia Center Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA).
In his presentation during the regional workshop on biotechnology and biosafety for food security and sustainable agriculture in Bogor, Indonesia, Dr. Hautea cited the following:
• It has the potential to undermine advances in poverty reduction and sustainable development
• It will greatly affect the health and productivity of crops, livestock, fish and forests, and dependent rural livelihoods
• It will increase hunger and malnutrition; by 2080, an additional 5 to 170 million people at risk of hunger.
Hunger is the physical sensation of desiring food. When politicians, relief workers and social scientists talk about people suffering from hunger, they usually refer to those who are unable to eat sufficient food to meet their basic nutritional needs for sustained periods of time.
More and more Filipinos will experience hunger as population continues to grow. In 1980, the Philippines was home to 48 million Filipinos. In 2000, the number swelled to 78 million. By 2012, the population reached 93 million. Today, the population has reached to more than 100 million. Given that the population of the Philippines is increasing at a rapid rate of 2.36 percent per year, it can be translated as an increase of more than 5,000 people daily.
It’s not only in the Philippines but throughout the world. “Population growth is going crazy,” deplored Dr. Frank A. Shotkoski, the director of Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II. “From 2 billion in 1935, it doubled to 4 billion in 1975. By 2000, the world was home to 6 billion. In 2030, there will be about 8 billion people inhabiting this planet.”
Is there a likely solution in sight for hunger? There is now one possible solution. “I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well advance in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug pointed out. “The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology?”
Dr. Borlaug, touted to be the “Man Who Saved A Billion Lives,” was referring to biotechnology. “Biotechnology is a modern technology that makes use of organisms (or parts thereof) to: make or modify products; improve and develop microorganisms, plants or animals; or develop organisms for specific purposes in a more precise manner,” explains a fact sheet circulated by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).
The tools used in biotechnology include gene cloning, tissue culture, microbial culture, DNA-marker technology, and genetic engineering. The latter is the most controversial as it is the method used in developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
A GM/biotech or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology, according to the SEARCA fact sheet.
“GM technology can address problems that cannot be solved through conventional crop improvement methods,” the fact sheet informs. “It enables plant breeders to bring together in one plant useful genes from a wide range of sources, not just from within the crop species or closely related plants.
“This powerful tool allows plant breeders to attain a desired trait combination faster and address urgent concerns like the development of crops that are resistant to biotic (diseases and pests) or abiotic stresses (drought and waterlogging), and with increased yield and improved food and nutrient quality,” the fact sheet adds.
In 1994, Calgene’s delayed-ripening tomato became the first GM food crop to be produced and consumed in an industrialized country. In 1995, GM cotton and GM corn were subsequently commercialized. Also soon to be introduced in the country are the following: GM eggplant and the vitamin A-rich golden rice.
The SEARCA fact sheet assured that GM crops will not replace varieties from traditional breeding “because genetic modification is only conducted to introduce important major genes to the already established and bred varieties.”
Genetic modification is conducted to further improve the already existing popular and high-yielding varieties. The transgenic variety can also be used in crop improvement and breeding programs, the fact sheet said.
But the big question is: Are GM-crops safe to eat? Although health risk of eating transgenic food is yet unknown, there are signs that it could cause allergies, resistance to certain medicines and possibly even affect internal organs.
In Europe, researchers at the York Nutritional Laboratory reported health complains caused by soya – the ingredient most associated with genetically modified food – increased from 10 to 15 in 100 patients over the past year.
A consumer advocacy group in United Kingdom said that genetically modified soya can be found in bread, biscuits, baby milk, baby foods, breakfast cereals, margarine, soups, pasta, pizza instant meals, meat products, flours, sweets, ice creams, crisps, chocolate, soy sauce, veggie-burgers, tofu, soya milk, and pet foods.
Recent scientific data, according to Dr. Romeo Quijano, of the Department of Pharmacology at the UP College of Medicine, indicated “the emergence of new diseases, the rapid evolution of virulence and the widespread occurrence of drug and antibiotic resistance are associated with the rise of genetic engineering.”
An estimated 60 percent of all processed foods contain at least one genetically engineered component, writes Jon Luoma inMother Jones magazine. In the Philippines, Filipinos may be eating transgenic foods, such as potato chips, corn cereals, or soya milk. “Love it or loath it, transgenic food is set to become a bigger part of what we eat,” someone noted.
And consumers need not worry. Tantono Subagyo, the seed regulatory director of CropLife Asia, said that biotech crops are rigorously tested for safety prior to commercialization.
“Biotech crops are tested to ensure they are as safe as conventional crops, and have similar nutritional and compositional content,” Subagyo said. “Biotech crops are among the most extensively tested foods in the history of food safety.”
In fact, there is widespread agreement from scientists and international health organizations, including the World Health Organization, that biotech crops, foods, and feeds are as safe as conventionally-bred crops, foods, and feeds.
In addition, over 3,200 renowned scientists worldwide have signed a declaration in support of agricultural biotechnology and its safety to humans, animals, and the environment.
The 2010 report of the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation on GMOs noted: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.”
“Two to three trillion meals have been eaten by human in North America and wherever containing GMOs. There’s nothing to substantiate the (negative) health impact (accusations) against any GMO products – not one, even headache or stomachache,” said Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist and author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet.
According to ISAAA, “biotech crops can serve as engine of rural economic growth for the alleviation of poverty for the world’s small and resource-poor farmers.” In the Philippines, for instance, Joseph Benemerito of Cagayan won a national award for his quality GM corn. He admitted that 22 hectares of land can be easily managed with biotech corn.
“GM (technology) is cheaper. If the biology of the crop can protect crops from pests, that’s more beneficial to farmers, cheaper than spraying,” said Lynas in a press statement. “Everywhere, when farmers are given a choice, they adopt it quickly. They can have high yield even if they pay a little more for seeds.”
While writing the book God Species in 2011, in which he attempted to become consistent in his position on the science of climate change, environment, and food production, Lynas came to a realization that GM is the answer to food shortage problems.
Like how GM crops are highly regulated, organic crops should be regulated. Regulation should be imposed on organic crops because one can die from natural causes “very easily from bacteria, from water, or contamination of manure during harvest.”
It must be recalled that it was organic crops that caused the death in 2011 of 51 people in Germany from ingesting E.coli-contaminated beansprouts from an organic farm as confirmed by Lower Saxony’s Agriculture Ministry.
“Organic has killed a few hundred people. GM has killed no one. Imagine headlines if 50 people would have died in Germany because of some GM. It would have been worldwide fear – like nuclear power. It would have been worldwide hysteria,” Lynas said.
Here’s another advantage of planting biotech crops. Globally, they can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Studies have shown that adopting biotechnology reduces the use of 475 millions of gallons of fuel by farm equipment – not mentioning the additional “soil carbon sequestration” due to reduced plowing or improved conservation tillage. “This is equivalent to removing five million cars from the road for one year,” said Graham Brookes, director of PGEconomics, a British research firm.
Meanwhile, the battle continues between GM activists and GM advocates. Who will emerge the winner? No one knows but there are always losers – the hungry. One sage puts it in this perspective: “A man who has enough food has several problems. A man without food has only one problem.”