Biotechnology: Possible solution to forthcoming food crisis?

By Henrylito D. Tacio

A United Nations agency has identified biotechnology as one possible solution to the food crisis the world is now facing. “Biotechnology has great potential to influence and benefit agriculture, forestry and fisheries,” said the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Modern techniques of biotechnology offer the potential of moving any cloned gene from any organism into any other organism and confer much greater precision and speed in achieving results than conventional techniques,” FAO explained.

Biotechnology, after all, has two compelling attributes, according to Dr. Robert Fraley, director of Plant Science Technology at Monsanto Agricultural Company in the United States. For the developed world like US and European nations, biotechnology can help ensure environmentally sustainable supplies of safe, nutritious, affordable food.

For the developing countries such as the Philippines and other Asian countries, among others, biotechnology can provide readily accessible, economically viable means of addressing primary food production needs.

Scientists define biotechnology as “any technique that uses living organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses.” One of the most powerful tools of biotechnology is molecular biology.

In the area known generally as genetic engineering, scientists can transfer genes between unrelated species endowing such “transgenic” plants, animals and microorganisms with properties that they could probably never have acquired in nature.

How does biotechnology differ from the conventional form? Here’s an explanation from the American Dietetic Association Biotechnology Resource Kit: “Traditional cross (plant) breeding requires the mixing of thousands of genes between two plants in the hope of getting the desired trait. With modern biotechnology, you can choose the specific characteristic you want and add that single feature to a seed.

The difference between these two techniques is dramatic. Imagine trying to add one word of Spanish to an English dictionary. With traditional plant breeding, you’d have to mix both dictionaries together and hope that the word you wanted ended up in the English version. Of course, lots of other words you weren’t interested in would have been added at the same time.”

According to proponents, bioengineered or genetically modified (GM) crops have the potential to provide significant environmental benefits. Plants with built-in insect or weed protection may help reduce the amount and potency of pesticides used. Reduced use of pesticides can also significantly decrease their effects on water quality through run-off and leaching of residues into surface and groundwater.

On the other hand, planting crops with herbicide tolerance encourages the adoption of no-till farming, an important part of soil conservation. More importantly, GM crops can significantly improve crop yields, so that more food can be grown on less land area.

Globally, biotech crops can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Studies have shown that adopting biotechnology reduces the use of 475 millions 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 PG Economics, a British research firm.

Perhaps one of the most popular bioengineered crops grown is the Bt corn. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that naturally occurs in soil. Through genetic engineering technique, a specific gene of Bt has been introduced into a corn variety. The Bt corn produces its natural pesticide against the Asian corn borer, which is responsible for heavy losses incurred by Filipino corn farmers every year.

At the International Rice Research Institute in Laguna, researchers have developed a bio-fortified rice. While all rice is basically all starch, some varieties have higher iron level. An iron-rich rice variety from Africa was crossed with a high-yielding local variety to produce a progeny that is high-yielding and iron-rich.

The bio-fortified rice has more than double iron content from 1.5 parts per million (ppm) to five ppm while zinc content is also doubled. Increased zinc content in the rice variety itself is beneficial for the plant, for insects, and for human since plants cannot readily obtain zinc from the traditionally zinc-deficient soil.

The Philippines is one the countries in Asia to plant GM crops – despite protests from some sectors. In fact, it has been included among the “mega-countries” that commercially produce such kind of crops. “Mega-countries,” as defined by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), are those producing or GM crops in 50,000 hectares or more.

Topping the list is the United States, which devoted 54.6 million hectares to GM crops. Also in the league are Argentina (18 million hectares), Brazil (11.5 million hectares), Canada (6.1 million hectares), India (3.8 million ha), China (3.5 million hectares), Paraguay (two million hectares), South Africa (1.4 million hectares), Uruguay (400,000 hectares), Australia (200,000 hectares), Mexico (100,000 hectares), and Romania (100,000 hectares).

The other biotech crop-producing countries are Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, Colombia, Iran, Honduras, and Czech Republic, all less than 100,000 hectares.

As early as 1990, the Philippine government has identified biotechnology as “a potential growth area.” In that year, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) designated biotechnology as a flagship program to boost the country’s march to newly industrialized country (NIC) status.

At the time of per presidency, Corazon Aquino also issued Executive Order No. 430 which created the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) that provided the mechanism for the safe conduct of biotechnology research and development. The executive order was actually an offshoot from the Section 10, Article 14 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which recognizes Science and Technology as essential ingredients for national development and progress.

In 1999, then President Joseph Estrada included biotechnology in the five-year Medium-Term Development Plan (1999 to 2004). The DOST has consequently committed to provide funding to R&D on the improvement of agricultural crops and livestock through modern and advanced biotechnology, development of vaccines, pharmaceuticals and biomedical devices.

Are GM foods safe to eat? Biotechnology campaigners said that foods derived from GM crops have undergone more testing than any other food in history. In 2000, the Australia New Zealand Food Authority issued this statement: “The level of safety associated with GM foods is at least as high as that of all other available foods because the safety assessment process undertaken for GM foods is far more thorough than that undertaken for any other food. The safety assessment process ensures that GM foods provide all the benefits of conventional foods and no additional risks.”

Dr. Jane E. Henney, then commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, agreed. “We have seen no evidence that the bioengineered foods now on the market pose any human health concerns or that they are in any way less safe than crops produced through traditional breeding,” she pointed out. — ###

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