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Biotechnology enters mainstream agri-production in Asia
by Munawar Hasan
15-April-2012 The News International
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SUBIC BAY, PHILIPPINES: Asian countries are increasingly adopting biotechnology for enhancing agriculture production. This emerged at a session organised by CropLife Asia and Biotech Coalition of the Philippines as part of Sixth Pan-Asia Farmers Exchange Programme at Subic Bay, the Philippines.

Representatives of as many as nine Asian countries participated in the session and talked about issues relating to adoption of biotechnology in their respective countries.

Talking about Plant Biotech Benefits, the Executive Secretary of Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines, Abraham Manalo said the Philippines was the first country in Southeast Asia to establish a regulatory system for genetically modified (GM) crops, while it is the sole country in the region currently commercialising GM/biotech crops.

“The advancements made by the Philippines are significant as it is the first country in Southeast Asia to be included in the top 15 biotech mega-countries. Its National bio-safety policy is considered as a model framework to other countries,” he added.

He claimed that the adoption of biotechnology had helped corn farmers in lowering production cost and led to a 60 percent reduction in pesticide use, as well as lowered labor costs associated with weeding and spraying.

Yield benefits are also huge as farmers harvested 34 percent more produce of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn over non-Bt varieties. It is estimated that benefits of planting biotech maize to farmers has been to the tune of $108 million during 2003-2009, Manalo observed. More importantly, it is claimed, he said, that no negative effect has been recorded on beneficial insects.

During her session, Lucy Li, a Communication Specialist at Bayer CropScience China, discussed issues pertaining to Biotech Application in China. She said adoption rate of Bt cotton in China stood at 71.5 per cent with 3.9 million hectares under cultivation.

She added that Bt cotton virtually saved China’s cotton industry as it was badly affected due to disaster of cotton bollworms in 1990s, which resulted in great production loss.

She said that as many as 95 percent of Bt cotton cultivated in China is locally developed varieties. In total, 64 varieties of Bt cotton are grown in China, while seven million cotton farmers planted it at 3.9 million hectare in 2011.

An increase in the income of farmers- by approximately $220 per hectare, on average- has been estimated due to a 10 percent increase in yield and a 60 percent reduction in insecticides use, she said.

Besides Bt Cotton, GM papaya and GM poplar have also been allowed to be sown commercially, she said, adding several other GM crops were on various stages of approval.

With biotech crops expected to provide an important contribution, the Chinese government has aimed to increase the total production to 540 million tons by 2020 and to double Chinese farmers’ income by the year 2020, Li concluded.

In his presentation, Dr Nadoor Seetharama, Director Association of Biotechnology led Enterprises (ABLE), said that only one GM crop is officially being cultivated on a large scale in India and that is cotton. He added that the area under cotton sowing had phenomenally increased, ranking India at the second position in cotton production in the world.

Nevertheless, he said, the introduction of Bt cotton and GM crops had also resulted in several undesirable controversies for the nation.

On the other hand, there has been no tangible development in Thailand for the adoption of biotechnology, despite the introduction of this technology in the country some 20 years ago.

Dr Sujin Patarapuwadol, Assistant Director, Centre for Agricultural Biotechnology, Kasetsart University, said that based on the cabinet’s decision on April 3, 2001, Thailand does not allow import and production of any transgenic plants for commercial purposes and field trials except for processed food and imports or sales of soybeans and corn for feed use, human consumption, and industrial use.

In 2003, the genetically modified organisms (GMO) roadmap was acknowledged and endorsed by the Thailand National Biotechnology Policy Committee. She added that work on development of yellow leaf curl virus-resistant tomato and virus-resistance papaya had been done.

Prof. Dr Bahagiawati Amir Husin, Scientist, Indonesia Center for Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Research (ICABIOGRAD) said that Indonesian scientists and decision-makers believe that biotechnology potentially increases agriculture production.

However, even though the government has been supporting the establishment of several centers of research facilities for research and development of GM crops since the early 1990s, there has not been a visible advancement on this front on ground.

In October 2010 and January 2011, Husin said, the Ministry of Agriculture stated that the biotech crop has a role in helping to sustain agriculture production in the perspective of climate change.

Limited field trials of GM crops are being conducted for drought tolerance sugarcane, potato resistance to late blight and rice resistance to stem borer.

Work is also being done on food safety approval of maize herbicide tolerant GA21 and insect resistance maize BT11 etcetera, Husin added.

Pakistani representatives at the Programme highlighted that introduction of formal certified GM crops in the country had been a distant reality due to various factors.

Ilyas Nadeem, Commercial Operation Lead Monsanto Pakistan and Dr. Mohammad Zafar Hayat District Governor Lodhran, Farmers Associates Pakistan (FAP) said that almost all the Bt cotton in the country was not properly certified and largely came from informal sources.

About commercialisation of GM maize, Nadeem said, field trials were being carried out in the country and it is hoped that commercial plantation of GM maize would be allowed following completion of prescribed procedure.

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