Outlook for GM agriculture

Published Sep 17, 2012 03:02am

THE Midwest region of the United States, which saw American Indians enter North America 12,000 years ago, is known as ‘America’s heartland’ for its primary role in the nation’s manufacturing and farming as well as its patchwork of big commercial cities and small towns.

The region consists of 12 states, one of them being the hub of agriculture — the state of Iowa where this year’s annual Farm Progress Show was held from August 28 to 31 in a colourful atmosphere; on display were the latest advances in farm machinery and equipments, and was visited by 200,000 farmers, media persons and students.

However, the show was stolen by the protagonists of biotechnology by setting up a myriad of demonstration stalls and even virtual farms showing how the new technologies are being applied to raise the output and protect the plants.

Monsanto, the leading biotech corporation, invited 800 guests from all over the world. They included a team of Pakistani journalists who were taken to the Farm Show and later visited a chain of research centres located at Ankeny in the state of Iowa and Chesterfield village in the state of Missouri and its headquarters in the city of St. Louis where they were familiarised with changing ways of doing farming and shown how seeds are “chipped from bottom to empower them with gene(s) that keep the crop diseases away and eliminate the need for several rounds of insecticides spray. This process saves time, delivers new products to the farm as much as two years faster and allows hybrids to deliver multiple benefits ‘stacked’ into each seed.”

During the visits, we drove by lush-green farms where Bt corn and Bt soybean crops, in particular, were planted but where no peasants or farm labour could be spotted as is the case in Pakistan or India. In the US, the farming community is hardly three per cent of the population as compared to 44 per cent in Pakistan. Mechanisation has almost eliminated the need for peasants, tenants and farm labour.

At research centres, we came across several Pakistani scientists and entomologists engaged by the corporation in its various projects. The corporation which is struggling hard to have its footprint in Pakistan has no research facility yet here. Currently, it is seeking regulatory approval of its Bt corn seeds whose field trials have been completed.

Earlier, it tried hard for years to get its Bt cotton seeds in the market as is the case in India, having similar farming conditions and soil behaviour, but could not succeed. However, Bt cotton is still sown on large tracts of cultivable land in Punjab and Sindh, using smuggled seeds with the hope of harvesting a higher crop.

In 2011, India completed a decade of cultivation of Bt cotton, which has almost transformed the cotton crop into the most productive and profitable crop in the country. India’s Bt cottons, now also exported in sizeable volumes, are seen as unique in that they are hybrids and not varieties, as used by all other countries planting Bt cotton. Last year, its sowing in India surpassed the milestone of 10 million hectares for the first time, and occupied 88 per cent of the record 12.1 million hectare cotton crop.

At the Farm Show, the keynote address was delivered by Monsanto’s chief technology officer Dr Robb Fraley who gave an outline of the progress achieved by biotechnology in the recent period and its acceptance outside the United States. Asked why Europe, despite its numerous benefits, was reluctant to embrace this technology, he said the situation in that continent was quite complicated.

While several countries were importing genetically modified (GM) food products such as soyabean and corn, their governments were not allowing farmers to grow GM crops. In fact, their populations, according to him, have lost faith in their regulatory system after the incidence of mad cow disease.

Recent reports reveal that the 27-member European Union has so far approved only one GM crop (maize Monsanto 810). Reflecting a deep divide despite the approval, six countries (France, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece, Austria and Hungary) have imposed a moratorium on the Bt corn crop. The nature of the divide is such that even in countries like Italy where no formal ban has been imposed, no farmer likes to plant the crop.

Meanwhile, countries such as Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic and Romania have begun planting the only allowed crop. Spain is growing the crop on 85 per cent of the total hectares in the EU with a record adoption rate of 28 per cent. Sweden and Germany are openly opposed to the GM crops but last year planted a token 17 hectares of the new biotech quality starch.

However, according to the latest report of ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications) the area where biotech crops are being sown has increased from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011.. There are 29 countries, including 19 developing countries, which are currently sowing biotech crops. More than half the world’s population, 60 per cent or about four billion people, live in these 29 countries which are both legally or illegally planting biotech crops. These countries are US, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, Pakistan, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Burkina Faso, Mexico, Spain, Colombia, Chile, Honduras, Portugal, Czech Republic, Poland, Egypt, Slovakia, Romania, Sweden, Costa Rica, Germany.

The advocates of biotechnology take pride in claiming that their technology has the potential to feed the growing global population in the future because theirs is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture and that they are committed to double the crop production by 2030.

It is in this context that farmers in China and India have been allowed by the state authorities to plant biotech crops keeping in view the huge size of their population and their future needs. They have so far collectively planted a record 14.5 million hectares of biotech crops.

Developing countries grew close to 50 per cent of global biotech crops in 2011 and for the first time are expected to exceed industrial countries’ hectarage in 2012.

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