Monday, August 25, 2008

The New Organic

Sorry for not updating the blog for a few days. We were extremely busy with two big events last week. Here is our new article...

The year 1996 marked a new era in agriculture. An important change swept over farms in many countries around the world with a new farming technique being adopted. The new technique allowed farmers to spray far less insecticides over their farms. In China, for example, when this technique was adopted in the beginning of 1997, cotton farmers reduced their annual use of poisonous chemicals by 156 million pounds. This is almost as much chemicals used in the entire state of California each year. Besides this benefit, there was increase in cotton yield and reduced production costs. Other positive environmental and socioeconomic impacts were also recorded – increase in the number of beneficial insects in the farm and fewer workers and family health problems from exposure to chemical pesticides.

This success story has been repeated around the world reflecting the aspirations of organic-farming advocates. But the winner in this case is not organic farming but genetic engineering or genetic modification (GM) technology. The first generation of GM crops was engineered to protect itself against insects. The plants carried a protein from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This protein kills pests but is safe to mammals, birds, fish, and human and has been a favourite among organic farmers.

Growing population, shortage of food, increase in food price, climate change, and the need to conserve the remaining pristine wilderness are enourmous challenges that we face today. And the agriculture sector has been the biggest culprit to the eroding condition of the environment with drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, emission of green house gasses through the use of chemicals, fuel, and tilling exercise. Permanent savings in carbon dioxide emissions through reduced use of fossil-based fuels, associated with fewer insecticide and herbicide sprays was estimated to be 962 million kg in 2005. This is equivalent to reducing the number of cars on the roads by 0.43 million. Along with the reduction in the use of chemicals, come other benefits to the consumers. Our food is less tainted with chemical residues and free of fungal toxins such as aflatoxin. Aflatoxin, produced by fungi is a known cancer-causing agent and is highly toxic to human and animals and is a big problem to the feed industry. Fungi infestation occurs when crops, for example corn is attacked by insects causing injuries which become entry points to these fungus.

The organic sustainable farming methods are labour and energy intensive and they require far more land to produce the same yield. By 2050, the number of people on earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion and organic farms are unable to feed the increasing population neither are they sustainable. With only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically and less than 1 percent in America, organic produce is far from market demand. Organic food also fetches higher price than its counterparts and therefore, is not affordable to everyone. In contrast, GM technology produces far higher yield and cheaper produce. The benefits of GM technology is evident with an increase of 12% in acreage in the last five years, with 114.3 million hectares planted with GM crops globally. GM crops represent 50 to 90 per cent of total crop acreage in countries where they are cultivated.

Today 70 percent of all processed foods in the United States have at least one ingredient from genetically engineered corn, cotton, canola, or soybean. Unlike the well-documented adverse effects of some pesticides, there has not been a single case of illness associated with these crops. Every year there are a few fatal cases reported in the US and Europe due to consumption of unhygienic organic vegetables, but none on GM foods. A report by the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that the process of adding genes to our food by genetic engineering is no riskier than mixing genes by conventional plant breeding. In Malaysia, we have been consuming GM soybeans and its derivates for more than a decade and no health hazards has been reported. Since all our feed for our livestock industry is imported and the bulk of it is made of corn and soybean, it is highly likely that they are GM, and that too has not posed any health problem to us. The reality is without GM feed, our livestock industry will collapse.

The remarkable success of GM crops should not be overlooked but should be considered as one of the alternatives to the current agricultural practice. It is undeniable that GM crops will play an increasingly important role in agriculture in spite of all the negative propaganda against this technology.

-by Mahaletchumy Arujanan


Anonymous said...


I wonder if you could clarify something for me - how does the protein reduce pests, but at the same time promote beneficial insects?

On a broader basis, given that your intention to start this blog is to promote GM, I have a suggestion - labelling products as GM would enable people to make appropriate choices, just as labelling products as organic now enables people to make choices despite higher costs (although you argue that this is not warranted). This differentiation will then enable better products to have a greater share of the market. For the superior quality, as you have described, of GM products should be easily distinguishable from the traditional organic and traditionally farmed products.

Lavi, Malaysia

Maha said...

Thank you for your comments.

The answer is quite simple – the Bt toxin is a highly pest-specific compound unlike broad spectrum pesticides that kills all insects and organisms. The specificity of Bt toxin has been extensively studied. I quote one of the papers here (Knowles, 1994, Advances in Insect Physiology, 24, 275-308). Studies have shown increased number of beneficial insects and other farm organisms in fields cultivated with Bt crops. A study done on behalf of Swiss Expert Committee for Biosafety (SECB) entitled “Ecological Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops” can be referred to.

I would like to clarify that the blog is not to promote GM but as mentioned in my previous posts, it is to discuss biotech issues related to Malaysia and counter unfounded negative accusations on this technology. You will see this from the myriad of subjects discussed in this blog.

To your second comment – I am for labelling as long as it is voluntary. Labelling will add cost and it will be borne by consumers. Those who could afford to buy labelled food at premium price can do so. However, it should not be a blanket requirement where the brunt is faced by everyone. In Japan, products are labelled as GM, non-GM, and Not tested. This provides choices to consumers just as you have suggested. With the sky rocketing of food prices, we certainly do not want to add more burden to consumers. What more, for something that has been tested vigorously for safety and approved.

If you are interested, please send us an email, we will be happy to send you some reports by prominent scientists and institutes.