Flirting with disaster

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Profit-driven corporations and concerned scientists face off over benefits and dire consequences of genetically modified crops

Greenpeace volunteers cordon off a plantation of Bt corn and mark it as a hot-zone in Mindoro, the Philippines

Vietnamese authorities are pursuing an ambitious plan to cover up to half of the country's arable land with genetically-engineered crops, a move that scientists and activists say is fraught with untold dangers.

Meanwhile, genetically modified organ (GMO), proponents, mainly huge agricultural corporations, argue that they offer great economic and food security benefits as the world's available agricultural land shrinks.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the US Embassy in Vietnam co-organized a lecture series from September 27 to October 1 to discuss the benefits of biotechnology for Vietnam's food security and economic development, including GMOs.

"The global net economic benefit of biotechnology in 2008 alone was estimated at US$9.2 billion - over half of which went to farmers in developing countries. These benefits arise from gains in yields and a reduction in production costs; in Vietnam, benefits will increase incomes and raise the standard of living for the country's rural residents," the US Embassy said in a press release.

Currently, under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Vietnam is undergoing field trials for biotech maize. Le Duy Ham, director of the Agricultural Genetics Institute under the agriculture ministry, said the trial has shown initial success.

"The central government has allowed field trials of GM maize, cotton and soybean plants before planting them on a large scale... We have trialed GM maize this season from seeds supplied by two companies abroad to plant on nearly 10,000 square meters to evaluate the effects on biodiversity and the environment."

"We have harvested the crop recently. Initial results show it has a strong resistance to insects and herbicide. Thus, the yield has increased with less costs for pesticides and uprooting weeds," he told Thanh Nien.

Duong Hoa Xo, director of the Ho Chi Minh City Biotechnology Center, said the center's GMO lab research would be completed in 2011 and mass cultivation of GM crops is expected to begin in 2012. Xo's center, was allowed last month to build 12 modern laboratories totaling $24 million for agriculture and seafood research, including biotechnology.

Actually, the plan to develop GM crops was approved in 2006 by the then Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in a decision that calls for a "major program for the development and application of biotechnology in agriculture and rural development through 2020."

The plan envisages the completion of lab research and field trials of some GM crops by 2010, cultivation by 2015 and planting between 30 and 50 percent of the country's farmland with GMOs by 2020.

Dr. Reynaldo Ebora, Director of the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines' Los Banos College, said available analyses and scientific studies on food safety and proteins proved GM crops including corn were as safe as conventional products, and problems have not been reported since commercial introduction of agricultural biotech crops in 1996, the Saigon Times Daily reported on October 5 in an article titled "Expert calls for publicity campaign for GM crops."

Ebora also delivered the keynote address "Genetically Modified Corn in the Philippines: From Cornfined Field Trials to Commercial Production" to the audience at the lecture series.

Despite increased output of biotech crops, Ebora said some reports have criticized the biotechnology. He explained there were concerns being raised because of toxin a term used for a particular protein in the GM process.

"This is actually not a toxin for humans, but it is a toxin to a specific group of insects," Ebora said, adding that this endotoxin was aimed at helping the crops develop resistance to insects including the corn borer.

Farmers will have to count on insecticide spraying to control their crop quality if they do not grow biotech crops, and this is not good for the consumers and the environment. "We know that insecticide residue still remains in the plants and causes environmental problems," Ebora told the paper.

However, Ebora did not mention any impacts on consumers and the environment because of the use of herbicides for eliminating weeds, a common practice in GM crop cultivation.

Profit driven

In direct contrast to Ebora's statements and the expectations of Vietnamese authorities, several experts have warned of the dire consequences that GMOs can have on biodiversity, the environment and human health. They also said GM crops indeed bring no benefit, except for chemical and biotechnology giants.

Daniel Ocampo, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner in Southeast Asia for Greenpeace, based in the Philippines, said that it would be "a big mistake for Vietnam to allow field testing and commercial release of GMOs into the environment.

"GMOs, once released into the environment, can contaminate traditional and other crop varieties and would be very costly and difficult to recall," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.

"Taking into consideration the status of Vietnam as the world's second largest exporter of rice, if contaminated with GMO rice, Vietnam will most probably lose its export markets. This is what happened to the US rice industry where farmers suffered more than $1.2 billion in losses when experimental and unauthorized rice varieties developed by Bayer were found in their rice exports," he said.

"Countries importing rice from the US either stopped importation, [or] rejected contaminated rice shipments and imposed very strict requirements for trade with the US to resume."

The Greenpeace representative said that commercial releases of GMO crops have not brought significant benefits to agriculture and food production while they have increased many risks.

"Depending on the crop, the risks include the contamination of soil and water due to the increasing use of herbicides in case of herbicide tolerant GM crops. In case of pesticide producing plants this includes proliferation of the Bt [Baccillus thuringiensis bacteria, commonly present in genetically engineered plants for pest control] toxins in soil and water systems that affect non-target organisms and aquatic insects/larvae.

"If Vietnam will have up to 50 percent of its agriculture lands planted with GMOs, farmers will not have a choice between planting traditional varieties or GMOs because of contamination," he said.

Hervé Le Crosnier, a researcher at the University of Caen and the French National Center for Scientific Research's Communication Sciences Institute in France, advised a safer alternative to GM crops.

"Why do people think that food security is only [attainable] through technology? The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development [an intergovernmental body that involved more than 400 scientists and 30 governments] consider that the agricultural sector needs to grow, but in a way that does not result in social hardship or environmental degradation," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.

"These experts have said that efforts should focus on the needs of small-scale farmers in diverse ecosystems."

"The Earth is not an experimental lab. Any change that doesn't fit with local conditions would have greater negative impacts that anyone can think of. It takes centuries for farmers to grow plants that are adapted to local conditions, and that give the best nutritional condition in these local spaces. Can we take a risk for the next few years?" he asked.

Ocampo also referred to the final International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report in 2008, which mentioned the urgent need to move away from destructive and chemical-dependent industrial agriculture and to adopt environmentally friendly modern farming methods that promote biodiversity and benefit local communities.

The IAASTD concluded that techniques like genetic engineering are no solution for soaring food prices, hunger and poverty, he said.

According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists published in April 2009, while genetically engineered crops have been hailed by some as critically important for ensuring adequate food supply in the future, it has so far produced only small increases in yields in the United States.

"When considering the benefits to society as a whole, the contribution of Bt genes to overall yield in corn has been modest; it is also significant that the yield increases have been from operational yield - reduction in yield losses - rather than from the intrinsic yield of the crop," the study found.

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