IS BIOTECHNOLOGY AN EFFECTIVE SOLUTION TO FOOD INSECURITY?
TARIQ AHMED SAEEDI
Mar 29 - Apr 4, 2010
There are two standpoints about it. One says world population is rising unabatedly and without building of available agriculture production capacity through scientific means the starvation on earth would raise further. Second is seeing a cost of genetically modified organism on nature as the technology plucks out production of crops.
More relevant to agro-developing economies is first argument as for agro-developing countries that have squarely different reasons of low agriculture productivity compared to agro-developed nations, the biotechnology can be a trigger of real potential of agriculture sector. This technology is also important for them to overcome the hurdles in achieving high agriculture productivity.
Today's biggest concern of developed economies is also to combat spiralling food prices and for it, billions of dollars are injected by international food and agriculture programmes to improve the agriculture productivity through for example deployment of storing, threshing, and harvesting technologies. The concern is not baseless as international researches are warning that if agriculture technologies are not bolstered, world food prices would continue to rise. Especially, world prices of corn, soybean, and canola will increase 5.8 percent, 9.6 percent, and 3.8 percent respectively over 2007 level, if the biotech crops are not available to farmers, notes a working paper published in January by Centre for Agriculture and Rural Development, Iowa State University. And, despite additional planting of three crops, there would be a net fall of 14 million tons in their global production, it estimates. According to the paper, net production of other crops including grain and oilseeds would likely to decline due to inadaptability to biotech traits.
Biotechnology is used to transform genes of seed so that crop production is not affected with herbicide, pesticide, unsuitable terrain, salinity, inclement weather, drought in arid zone etc. The technology also minimizes the energy and water consumption for agriculture production.
Agriculture sector is a mainstay of Pakistan's economy. However, the sector is not contributing to the economy in line with its real potential. All major crops in the country have low productivity because of inputs mismanagement. Application of biotechnology on agriculture sector and genetically modified crops can increase the agriculture outputs manifold. This technology has added 47 million tons to total corn production in 25 countries. Since widespread application of biotechnology in 1996, global biotech acreage shot 74 fold to 125 million hectares in 2008, owing to growing concern for biodiversity and food security with Unites States a leading user of biotech in agriculture production, the paper says.
The importance of biotechnology was realized in Pakistan back in 1960 when genetics engineering was emerging as a recognized science of developing high yield seeds and efficient plants in some Far East countries. Government of Pakistan established National Commission on Biotechnology in 2001 to provide technical assistance and information resources to professionals and biotechnology institutes in the country.
A major biotech breakthrough occurred in agriculture when Pakistan's leading biotech research entity, National Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) came up with a remedy to perennial virus of cotton known as cotton leaf curl virus (CLCV). The pest is dangerous to the production of crop as it mows down the otherwise good produce. The rate of infestation has been higher over a time as significant portion of cotton crops is lost to the virus. Application of substandard and uncertified Bt cotton seed is also responsible for counterproductive result of biotechnology nationwide. CLCV has been a serious threat to cotton crop since 1987. According to an estimate, the virus had caused a loss of 543,294 bales of cotton with infested area estimated at 97,580 hectares during 1992-93.
Yields per acre from wheat and rice have improved substantially since the 1970's drought-like condition, which made the entry in Pakistan new seeds of rice from International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Manila, Philippine.
The problem of weeds in soybean, corn, and canola can be controlled with biotech. Usage of herbicide tolerant technology can not only weed out the problem, but it can also shorten soybean production cycle since farmers can plant herbicide soybean after wheat crop in same growing season with high yields per acre, as per the international research.
The paper finds no impact of low prices of genetically modified agriculture outputs on farmers since according to it cost saving biotech would compensate lower prices. It was said that productivity enhancing biotech could decrease prices at the cost of income of farmers. In contrast, adoption of biotech traits would rather jack up income of farmers while delivering low-priced foods to consumers. "The direct farm income gain identified from adoption of biotech traits over the period 1996-2006 was recorded at $33.8 billion," mentions in the working paper.
Salinity and water logging are two ominous problems of agriculture sector in Pakistan making fertile lands uncultivated as well as scaling down crop production. A local research says the country loses over 30 percent of its agriculture productivity to water logging and salinity. While the twin problems are extant across the plains of the country, they are more pronounced in agriculture lands of Sindh because of its closeness with the Arabian Sea. Around forty percent of its culturable lands are saline. Seawater intrusion has rendered two million acres of its agriculture lands barren until recently. Western countries are practicing widely biotechnology for the reclamation of saline lands. NIBGE is said to have reclaimed approximately 11 million acres of saline soils through biotechnology. The biological methods developed by the institute were imitated by international atomic energy agency as models. That is a manifestation of country reaching to certain international standard in GMO.
In Pakistan, various professionals and education and research institutions are conducting researches on development of biotechnology products for pharmaceutical industry, agriculture industry, and industrial goods for wide applicability in industrial processes. Some of them have succeeded in developing products in their laboratories, which are available for commercialization. Few biotechnology products include disease free potato, disease free sugarcane, transgenic basmati and cotton, and Bt biopesticide. University of Karachi's HEJ research institute has gone one-step further by distributing virus free varieties of banana in the country. It has also designed saline-resistant seeds especially oilseed that can be cultivable on the coastal wastelands. Use of biotech in soybean and canola can also reduce the import bill of Pakistan.
Where there are merits of GM crop, it could also not evade the grip of alike some environmentalists and scientists who argue in disfavour of manipulation of crop basing their arguments on some logical lines. First, they say since GM crop cannot be stored or preserved farmers need to purchase them every season on revised prices. Second, environmentalists are wary of fallouts of genetically modified crops on climate as compulsion of any kind for them is akin to playing with the nature, which could be disastrous. Third, but importantly they do not think that GM farms, which are addicted to controlled feedings, would anytime adapt to natural seeds or non-GMO in future.
Global food shortage due to both unprecedented increase in demand and supply deficiencies has equally opened up an opportunity for agro-based economies. Dearth of modern technology and mechanization are prime culprits of low crop yields in Pakistan. Agriculture produce may be bartered with technology of collaborating countries. These exchanges will build agriculture sector of the country on sustainable basis and contribute in global food safety. International agriculture experts and researches inculpate climate change for bringing down crop yields, and recommend biological research and use of commercial hybrid seeds that reduce consumption of waters and other inputs for agriculture production and improve crop yields.