Archived news articles - 2008

The Straits Times, 12 May 2008

GM crops a viable option for food crisis?

By Tania Tan

RICE crops are failing in many parts of the world, but at a small emerald patch in Java, farmers are celebrating a windfall.

A group of Indonesian farmers testing genetically modified (GM) crops this year harvested 50 per cent more grain - about 3 tonnes of rice per hectare. Super rice strains - with genes inserted to make them hardy, drought-resistant or more nutritious - are being tested in countries such as China, the Philippines, India and the United States.

There is no GM rice being grown commercially, but experts say that any success will come none too soon to feed an increasingly hungry world.

Rice, whose price has risen by more than 70 per cent in the past year, is not the only crop in crisis.

Soya beans now cost 87 per cent more, while wheat prices have soared a staggering 130 per cent.

The United Nations estimates that more than 100 million of the world's poorest cannot afford to buy food.

That means for every Singaporean who tucks into a hearty dinner, 25 others in the world go to sleep hungry.

The widespread use of GM crops, say proponents, will herald the coming of a second green revolution, and help to fill empty stomachs.

According to the World Health Organisation, GM foods have the 'potential to benefit the public health sector' by providing more nutritious food, decreasing its allergenic potential and also improving the efficiency of food production systems.

Since the first rot-resistant GM tomato made its way to dinner tables in the early 1990s, commercially grown GM crops have expanded to include maize, soya beans and rapeseed.

But plagued by bad publicity, dubbed 'Frankenfoods' and rejected by consumers, such crops are still in the minority, making up only 114.3 million ha, or 8 per cent of total crops worldwide last year.

The topic has been a hot potato for the past two decades.

But in the face of escalating food prices, the world can no longer afford to shun the potential of these crops, said Dr Clive James, chairman of the pro-GM body, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (Isaaa).

'People misunderstand GM foods, but sometimes it is simply because they do not have all the facts,' he said. 'People tend to fear what they do not understand.'

The figures - published in a 160-page report by the independent, non-profit Isaaa, speak for themselves, he said.

The pro-GM body has projected that by 2015, the number of farmers using biotech crops could surpass 100 million worldwide.

This, is turn, could contribute to achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goal of helping to reduce poverty

and hunger by 50 per cent by then.

Based on peer-reviewed scientific articles, the annual report is a noted analysis of biotech crops.

It found that disease- and pest-resistant wheat has helped cut down the amount of chemicals used in farming, for example.

In 2006, studies estimated that farmers growing pest-resistant crops used less fossil fuel-based chemical sprays - reducing 1.2 billion kg in carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking 500,000 cars off the road.

At last count, there were 23 countries planting biotech crops, with the United States leading the pack, ahead of Argentina and Brazil.

But some detractors are still crying foul.

Environmental activist group Greenpeace has called biotech crops a 'disaster', citing threats to health safety and natural biodiversity if such plants enter ecosystems.

It has said: 'The simple truth is, we do not need GM technology.'

The group believes that by using sustainable and organic farming methods, farmers can reap the same results.

Modified crops are sometimes made sterile to prevent accidental cross-breeding with natural plants so that mutant varieties would not be created.

However, there has been no documented health hazard related to GM foods since the first modified tomato was consumed in 1994 - though many argue that not enough time has passed for any problems to show up.

While such crops could help alleviate the food crisis, they are also costly.

GM seeds cost up to twice as much as normal ones. Using sterile seeds also means farmers must buy new seeds after every harvest.

But the tide of negative opinion seems to be turning.

In the Philippines, farmers have been using GM maize seeds for the past two seasons - a clear sign that they like the returns, said Dr James.

'Farmers are an extremely practical bunch. If the crop is not working for them, then they will not use it,' he said. 'It is their livelihood - they cannot afford to mess up.'

While current GM crops are mainly pest- and herbicide-resistant, the real stars like drought-tolerant maize could be approved by 2011, and the rice version some years later.

The hardy rice grains, already undergoing trials in Iran, require less water - a boon in countries hit by prolonged drought.

Locally, at least half of the corn, canola oil and soya bean products sold are GM-based, said Singapore's Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC).

Labelling of such foods is not mandatory, but Singapore's reliance on imports means that GM foods could be anywhere on the market now, said Singapore's food watchdog, the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority.

GMAC chairman Ngian Tong Tau said such crops could provide a much needed reprieve to the world's food problems.

'If we reach a point where it is GM food or no food, I think we have no choice but to consider it,' he said.

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