GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS

By Dr. AMANULLAH CHAUDHRY
Department of Agronomy University of Agriculture, Faisalabad,
 E-mail uaf_amanullah@yahoo.cm

Dec 20 - 26, 2004

As a consequence of genomic revolution, the creation of new scientific knowledge is occurring at a remarkable fast rate. A biotechnology resulting from this revolution holds great promise. The potential of genetically modified organisms to increase agricultural productivity offers hope for feeding the growing population, raising nutritional intake, as well as potential for improvements in health and ability to cure and prevent diseases. Pakistan has best climate, soil and irrigation facilities for production of high quality seed. Pakistan can use its natural resources for production of high value genetically modified seeds. This will increase country's capability in high technology, create employment opportunities in science and technology and ultimately will result in poverty reduction.

Biotechnology holds tremendous promise to solve human problems in the field of food, medicine and industry. With population growing at a high rate and per acre production of food crops not showing any sign of improvement, the problem can only be addressed through biotechnology.

Modern biotechnology is often equated with genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology, which began in the 1970's. This technology has been found by plant scientists to be very precise tool in crop improvement. It has helped in breeding for higher yields, resistance to pests and diseases, tolerance to both biotic and a biotic stresses, improved nutritional quality and improved processing, storage and post-harvest qualities.

The adoption of genetically modified crops has been phenomenal from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 52.6 million hectares in 2001. This represent an increase of more than 30 fold in only six years. Globally, the principal GM crops are soybean, maize, cotton and canola. Other GM crops grown commercially are potato, papaya and squash. However, in spite of perceived benefits from GM crops, several health and environmental concerns have been raised. As a result, there is wide spread opposition among consumers, and a general lack of public acceptance. On the other hand, pharmaceutical products produced by the same procedures have generally been accepted. The important developments in GM crops will be presented as:

BT-CROPS

Genes from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have been inserted into plants, causing them to produce a protein that is toxic to certain insects. The environmental risks and benefits of Bt-crops depend on the specific Bt-gene-construct, and crop in which it is introduced. The gene constructs make a difference because there are hundreds of different Bt-genes that produce different toxins, which affect a range of pests. There are a variety of promoters that are used for the preparation of gene-constructs. In addition, as major corn pests vary in different geographic locations, the same Bt-gene cannot be effective everywhere. Insect-resistant cotton is most widely adopted transgenic crop in developing countries. Transgenic cotton containing Bt gene that is resistant to certain insects pests was first grown in Australia, Mexico and the United States in 1996 and has subsequently been introduced commercially in six other countries: Argentina, china, Columbia, India, Indonesia and South Africa. Transgenic cotton varieties accounted for about 15 percent of global cotton area in 2002 compared with only 2 percent in 1996. Farmers in areas where bollworms are the primary pest problem, particularly when resistance to chemical pesticides is high have rapidly accepted Bt cotton.

In China, cotton cultivation is an insecticides-intensives process, and the benefit of cultivation Bt-cotton is that it has reduced sprays from 21 to 7 per crop season and has helped in better control of aphids by predators in cotton agro-ecosystem. In US the average number of pesticides application used against bollworms has fallen from 4.6 to 0.8 applications. It has been observed by FAO, that in several cases the per hectare savings by farmers, particularly from Bt cotton, have been large when compared with almost any other technological innovation introduced over the past few decades. More than 35 different transgenic cotton varieties are on the market in the United States. These varieties and most Bt varieties worldwide contain genes licensed from Monsanto. An exception is in China, where an independent source protection is available. The China Academy of Agricultural Sciences developed a modified Bt gene. In addition the Academy has isolated a gene from cowpea that provides insect resistance through different mechanism. The Academy has incorporated these genes in more than 22 locally adopted varieties. China is the only country in Asia growing a significant amount of GMOs - more than half of its cotton crop. Chinese biotech research programs employ 20, 000 people in 200 laboratories. In Argentina, Mexico, South Africa and elsewhere, the Bt cotton varieties all contain the Monsanto gene, often originally developed for the United States market.

HERBICIDE RESISTANT CROPS

Genetically modified crops being cultivated worldwide, about 83 percent of the area is planted with herbicide resistant crop including soybean, maize cotton and canola. Herbicide resistant crops offer new options for herbicide use to control weeds; helps reduce tillage, prevents soil erosion and preserves soil moisture for plant production. Effective farm management and improved efficiency were the main reasons for commercial success of herbicide resistant crops. Genetically engineered herbicide tolerant crops feature a gene from the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which make the recipient plant tolerant to broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate. Introduced to a crop plant, the technology can facilitate weed management in farmers' field. It can reduce production costs, through the substitution of glyphosate for an array of more expensive (and more toxic) herbicides. The timing and choice of herbicide is simplified for herbicide tolerant crops because glyphosate effectively controls broad-leaved weeds and grasses and has a fairly broad window for the timing of application. Monsanto developed herbicide tolerant for various crops. Herbicide tolerant soybeans were commercially released in Argentina and the United States in 1996. The sale and use of this technology is protected in the US through patents and sales contract with farmers, but neither form of intellectual property protection is used in Argentina. Thus in Argentina, herbicide soybean are widely available from sources other than Monsanto and Argentine farmers are largely allowed to use farm-saved seeds. As a result Argentine farmers pay a relatively small price premium of about 30 percent whereas farmers in the US on average pay 43 percent more. Adoption proceeded rapidly in both countries. By 2002, an estimated 99 percent of the Argentine soybean area and 75 percent of US area were cultivated with herbicide resistant seeds. Herbicide resistant crops have assisted in increasing crop production by providing an effective and convenient weed control strategy and to date, no major negative environmental effects have been reported. There are several ongoing large-scale studies being conducted in Canada and UK, which are assessing the impact of gene flow in canola and other crops.

RICE AND WHEAT

Golden rice has been genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene; researchers at German and Swiss universities developed the precursor to vitamin A Golden Rice. The owners of the patents who were involved in the development of Golden Rice have denoted them for humanitarian purposes, which mean that farmers in developing countries (with sales of less than $ 10,000) are permitted to grow and reproduce Golden Rice without paying technology fees.

Vitamin A deficiency affects more than 200 million people worldwide. Golden Rice is a sustainable and low cost alternative to other treatments.

China claims to have developed the world's first genetically modified wheat in 1990, is now running 10 GM rice field trials and has become the world's largest importer of GM soybean.

Due to opposition of consumers, Monsanto decided not to release GM wheat on the global market.

GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS AT INTERNATIONAL CROP RESEARCH INSTITUTE FOR SEMI-ARID TROPICS (ICRISAT)

ICRISAT have developed transgenic in two crops, namely groundnut resistant to Indian peanut clump virus (PCV) and pigeon pea resistant to legume pod borer.

The GM groundnut resistant to PCV is inserted with coat protein/replicas gene. Other GM groundnuts, which are resistant to fungi and a biotic stress, are being characterized. The programme for biofortification of groundnut with vitamin A has been initiated and it is also proposed to develop an edible vaccine.

GM pigeon pea has Bt crylab gene inserted in it. Other pigeon pea having SBTI gene, fungi-resistant pigeon peas and biofortification with sulphure, amino acids and vitamin A has been initiated.

GM chickpea has been developed having Bt crylab, SBTI, Bt crylac gene.

Target traits in sorghum have been identified to fight stem borer with the insertion of Bt crylac and Bt crylab genes and for resistance to shoot fly with the insertion of Bt crylab gene.

ICRISAT is planning next generation of genetically modified crops in the range of controlled gene expressions, enhanced nutritional content, functional foods and phytocuticals, plant-derived plastics and polymers and transgenic plants for photo remediation.

PHARM CROP

Most of the field-testing of genetically modified biopharmaceutical crops appears to have been carried out in the US, France and Canada. US completed 315 such tests between 1991 and 2002 including GM maize, rice, soya and tobacco mosaic virus. The majority of tests were done in Nebraska, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. Canada completed 53 field tests of pharm crops between 1955-1998.

The California Rice Commission recently approved a request to grow the state's first crop genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals. The transgenic rice produces two human proteins-lactoferrin and lysozyme found in breast milk, tears and saliva, which will kill bacteria that cause severe diarrhea. Lactoferrin acts against bacterial pathogens by preventing them from taking up iron needed for their growth while lysozymes breaks down the cell wall material of the bacterial pathogens. Washington State University field-tested barley altered with human genes from lactoferrin, lysozyme and antithrombin. Maize modified with human lactoferrin was field tested in France.

The GM rice pharm crop, like other crops that produce pharmaceuticals in seed has a gene construct that includes the human genes for biopharmaceutical protein driven by a seed specific promoter, and the protein is expressed with a fusion polypeptide (the signal peptide) that causes the fusion protein to accumulate in a cell compartment such as vacuole or seed endosperm. However lysozyme incorporated in plants was patented in 1994 as a biopesticide to protect plants against fungal and animal pests, and its localization to the endosperm of transgenic rice has been reported recently. The transgenic milk-protein crops are just the start. Other transgenic crops will follow, producing ant-coagulants, human growth hormones, antibodies and a range of other biopharmaceutical products.

DROUGHT AND SALINITY TOLERANCE AND GM CROPS

Due to the complexity of the processes, to date, there have been no big breakthroughs in developing drought and salt resistant GM crops and there are little prospects of such crops in the near future. Developing drought or salinity tolerant crop is a huge challenge.

OTHER RELATED ISSUES:

The most important factors in ensuring that farmers have access to transgenic crops on favorable economic terms and appropriate regulatory oversight include:

(a) Sufficient national research capacity to evaluate adopts innovations

Farmers in some countries have been able to take advantage of innovations and crop varieties developed for the North America market, but for most of world the development of locally adopted ecology specific cultivars will be essential.

(b) Active public and private input delivery systems

In all countries where small farmers have adopted transgenic crop, a seed delivery mechanism has been in place and in some cases small farmers have been specifically targeted. In most countries, national seed companies have served this function in cooperation with transnational firm, often with the support of national government and farmers' organizations.

(c) Reliable, transparent biosafety procedures

The economic impacts of transgenic crop depend on the regulatory setting in which it is introduced. In all the cases where these crops are introduced, the countries have a biosfety process in place that has approved the commercial planting of transgenic crops. Countries that lack biosafety protocols or the capacity to implement them in a transparent, predictable and trusted way may not have access to the new technologies.

(d) Balanced intellectual property rights policies

Although the transgenic crops have been delivered through the private sector in most cases, the benefits have been widely distributed among industry, farmers and final consumers. This suggests that monopoly position engendered by intellectual property protection does not automatically lead to excessive industry profits. The balance between the intellectual property rights of technology suppliers and the financial means of farmers has a crucial impact on adoption of the products and hence on the level and distribution of benefits. The case of China clearly illustrated that public-sector involvement in research and development and the delivery of transgenic cotton can help ensure that poor farmers have access to the new technologies and that their share of the economic benefits is adequate.

(e) Apprehensions

It is in Asia that the new techno-food will live or die. Asia is home to the world's largest consumer base and the greatest number of farmers. If Asians accept US claims that GM food that it is safe to eat, safe to grow, and the only way to feed growing populations these new varieties of rice, soybeans, and corn will rule the world. If Asian countries follow the cautious lead of the European, however, by labeling GM products and establishing a system that can trace health problems back to their source, biotechnology will occupy a more modest niche on the farm and market place. Chinese government has, until now, avoided planting GM food crops for public consumption. China also joined the like-minded group, a coalition of 100 developing countries favoring strict regulation of GMs. But quietly, China is trying to corner the Asian market on GM research and development and even overtake the US sector. As Chinese biotech expert of Academy of Agricultural Science said, "If we do not boldly push ahead with GM technologies, we will never have our own Monsanto or Syngenta (biotech firms)." In China GM skeptics demand labeling to alert consumers to possible risks. India and Indonesia have also been cheerleaders for GM research, hopeful that the new crops can be pest free and feed burgeoning populations. But when both countries began easing into the technology by planting GM cotton, they discovered mixed results. Still, the two countries are continuing research: Indonesia plans a " bio-island" on Ramping Island near Singapore, while India pours money into bio-fortified foods, such as vitamin A-enriched rice, peanuts and mustard.

Japan is cautiously researching GM applications such as super carbon dioxide-absorbent trees to combat global warming. But Japanese people are highly cautious. Japanese consumer groups persuaded their government to stop GM rice trials.

Japan has labeling law, but it is somewhat looser than European standard. While a product in Europe must be labeled if more than 0.9 percent of its ingredients are from GM sources, Japan has set the bar at 5 percent. Thailand also chosen the 5 percent threshold. South Korea's threshold is 3 percent. Neither India nor Pakistan has adopted labeling laws.

To counter GM countries pressure, anti-GM activists are pushing their governments to assume the European stance. They have also been active at the international level lobbying for the passage and ratification of Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, under which any country can justify their refusal of imports on the grounds of health and safety. Top GM - growing countries have not ratified the agreement, however.

CONCLUSIONS

The environmental effects of Bt cotton have been strongly positive. In virtually all instances insecticide use on Bt cotton is significantly lower than conventional varieties. Furthermore, for herbicide tolerant soybeans, glyphosate has been substituted for more toxic and persistent herbicides and reduced tillage has accompanied herbicide tolerant soybeans and cotton in many cases. Negative environmental consequences, although meriting continued monitoring, have not been documented in any setting where transgenic crops have been deployed to date. Pakistan is a cotton country, it should do home work to introduce Bt and herbicide tolerant cotton and other crops.

Pakistan should develop its biotechnology industry. Biotechnology holds tremendous promise to solve human problems in the field of food and medicine.

Private sector in Pakistan should come forward and invest in research and development in this high technology. Biotechnology will have central role in high technology business. Our industry should acquire this technology by having joint ventures with foreign biotechnology firms and government. By judiciously applying biotechnological, approaches, Pakistan agricultural, pharmaceutical and other industries can become globally competitive.

The government should address concerns of biotechnology industry relating to implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) laws on biodiversity and bioprospecting along with those relating to the issue of intellectual property rights (IPRS). There should be national biotechnology policy.

There should be greater partnership between public and private sector to take innovations from laboratories to marketplace. Biotechnology parks should be developed across Pakistan and the provinces should take interest in setting up these parks under small and medium enterprises.

There should be creation of high quality human resources and an enabling environment to attract foreign investments. It may be accomplished by allowing academia and researchers in universities and public sector institutes to work for private biotech companies while retaining lien with parent organizations.

Governments grants for researches in private sector for adopting the researches done in the public sector, zero import duty on raw materials and several other fiscal incentives are needed.

As a consequence of genomic revolution, the creation of new scientific knowledge is occurring at a remarkable fast rate. Biotechnologies resulting from this revolution hold great promise. The potential of genetically modified organisms to increase agricultural productivity offers hope for feeding the growing population, raising nutritional intake, as well as potential improvements in health and the ability to care and prevent diseases. Pakistan has best climate, soil and irrigation facilities for production of high quality seed. Pakistan can use its natural resources for production of high value genetically modified seeds. This will increase country's capacity in high technology, create employment opportunities in science and technology and ultimately will result in poverty reduction.