Tuesday, October 28, 2008

UK: GM Protesters 'On Messianic Mission'

UK farming minister Lord Rooker last night hit out at anti-GM protesters, claiming they were on a "messianic mission" not based on science and that the public were being "taken for a ride" by campaigners who behaved as if opposition to the technology was a "religion".Amid mounting frustration at the emotive debate being hijacked by talk of "Frankenstein foods", the minister warned Britain was at risk of losing its position as a world leader in bio-technology because of ignorant public opposition to the development of genetically modified food.He said public attitudes to scientific developments - including GM - had to change or the experiments would simply be carried out overseas, adding: "I think we haven't taken it seriously." He said the public would accept GM technology in medicines for themselves and loved ones, but went on: "It is a difficult issue with food."If the ignorance prevails, we don't allow experiments to take place because of the fear you might find a result you don't want. We just put up with people trashing the crops and magistrates let them off. Frankly, we're just being taken for a ride."And in a stark warning to extremist protesters, he said: "One thing I will not accept is the arguments and the slogans when there isn't any evidence. They are on a messianic mission. It is almost a religion where there isn't any science base to it."Andrew Opie, food policy director of the British Retail Consortium, said: "We don't sell it because nobody wants it. There isn't a demand for GM crops, and we have perfectly good non-GM food in this country."
Paul Temple, vice-president of the NFU, said: "Europe is not engaging in the debate. And it's for political reasons in Europe. It will cause huge problems in the supply chain in future, and we should be talking about it now. We are driving investment in this technology to North America, South America, India and China. Plant genetics is absolutely vital for the future of agriculture."

Thanks to AgBioView for this article.

My hope is that we do not allow our country to be colonised by our colonial masters and blindly follow their positions, which most of the time is shaped by Green NGOs. Let us think for ourselves, what is important for the future of the nation, our welfare, and long-term priorities.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BioFuel Debate (1st part)

Biofuels originate from some type of biomass, or biological matter that can be used for fuel. The two most common types of biofuels are bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol is created by fermenting sugar or starch; corn and sugar are most often used. Biodiesel, on the other hand, is made by combining alcohol, usually methanol, with vegetable oil, such as that found in soybeans, palm oil, animal fat or recycled cooking grease. Once biomass is converted into liquid fuel, it can be used for a variety of energy needs. Biofuel is not something new; in fact the first diesel engine by Rudolph Diesel in 1894 was made to run on biodiesel (hempseed oil).

Despite being around for more than a century, biofuel did not receive much attention until quite recently. Biofuel's popularity actually depends very much on the price of petroleum and there weren't any interest in biofuel when petroleum price was below USD$30.00 per barrel.

The use of biofuel as an alternative energy has got many countries exited including Malaysia. In the recent BioMalaysia opening speech, our PM has urged all relevant agencies to focus on new and economically viable biotech methods to produce renewable energy. But unfortunately biofuel receives a lot of negative connotation from the critics who believes that biofuel is not the real solution to the energy crisis. There is also the debate on the use of food crops to produce biofuel which can lead to increase of commodities prices such as palm oil if the oil palm is diverted to produce biofuel rather than for food.

In fact MPOB has also been directed to research on Jatropha on the viable production of biodiesel. Jatropha isn't new to Malaysia. I was told by an entrepreneur that Jatropha was brought to Malaysia by the Japanese during World War II to fuel their vehicles.

Before I get into real argument on which will be the best biofuel option for Malaysia, I would like to share the video presentation (Biofuels: Think Outside The Barrel) by Sillicon Valley billionaire, Vinod Khosla. In his one hour presentation, he shares his vision on making biofuel the best alternative to fosil fuel.

By Joel William

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Boost to Malaysian Biotechnology

The recently concluded BioMalaysia 2008 was a success, which saw the convergence of science and the industry. The exhibition reflected the seriousness of companies, both local and foreign in the industry. Compared to previous years, more ‘real’ biotech work was exhibited by both the private and the public sectors. These are certainly some good signs.

But the darling of the event was our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi who gave an excellent speech and showed his commitments in developing this sector and ensuring the nation sees the fruits of labour. This is important as so much of resources have been spent, in terms of funds, time, and human capital. As I always say – there is no turning back and we only have one speed option – full throttle. Biotechnology is not only the engine of growth for Malaysia, but globally. Countries that do not realise this will be lagging behind.

Serious and urgent efforts need to be taken to create conducive environment for the industry and research to flourish. I would like to reproduce part of his speech here:

The pool of Malaysian biotechnology knowledge workers, scientists and researchers must be expanded. Present efforts by public and private institutions to train qualified graduates must make a quantum leap in order to support the quantity and quality demanded by the industry. The legal and regulatory environment must be simplified to reduce delays and uncertainties, whilst maintaining protection of intellectual property as well as safeguarding the environment. The quality of R&D must be improved to increase the chances for commercialisation and value creation.

These are long-term issues, requiring consistent and steady effort. If all parties work together, with unity of purpose, there is nothing that cannot be achieved. Policymakers, regulators, scientists and industry participants must engage and understand each other. Complex issues, such as those involving industry development and environmental preservation, should be discussed in a way that leads to accord and solution. We must always be ready to meet each other half-way as we try to build a sustainable and competitive industry, while ensuring ethical conduct and ecological protection.

The Prime Minister rightly pointed out the need to build human capital, ensuring a balanced regulatory regime, and enhancing the quality of R&D work. My favourite was his request for policymakers, regulators, scientists and the industry to work together in drawing policies and regulations. Many do not realise that the repercussions of stringent regulatory regime or the lack of it. We have to strike a balance. This must be done in a transparent manner, after intensive and continued consultation with all stakeholders, and taking into account all the implications. No one wants to create disasters to the environment. In fact, modern biotechnology, particularly GM technology has not caused any negative effects to the environment or human and animals. Instead of being paranoid about emerging technology, we should be pragmatic and be able to weigh its benefits and potential risks. Regulations should be drawn to minimise risks and not completely halt the development of technology. Many technologies would not have passed the acid test if precautionary principles were applied. Automotive industry is an excellent example. The No. 1 killer in Malaysia is road accidents. However, that has not reduced the number of cars on the road.

I hope the advice from the Prime Minister will be taken seriously in decision making processes in order to give the biotech industry a push forward.
By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, October 10, 2008

Revisiting Agriculture

Malaysia moved from agriculture based economy in the 1970s to he manufacturing and electronics in the 1980s and now is revisiting the agriculture sector. In the last few years the agriculture sector has been accorded prominent emphasis and identified as the third engine of economic growth. Whereas, under the National Biotechnology Policy this sector is listed as the number one thrust. This move by the government is commendable and is certainly a far-sighted one in light of food security problems faced globally. As a nation that has high food import bill and far from being self-sufficient in terms of food production, we need to rethink our strategies in transforming our agriculture sector. All industrial countries were once agriculture-based economies. This is evident as agriculture growth was the precursor to the industrial revolutions that spread across the temperate world from England in the mid-18th century to Japan in the late 19th century. In recent years we are witnessing rapid agricultural growth in China, India and Vietnam and this is going to give a boost to their economy. Agriculture too, has a well-established record as an instrument for poverty reduction.

However, promoting and developing this sector does not come without problems. Agriculture leaves the largest environmental footprint – from reduced biodiversity, mismanaged irrigation water, agrochemical pollution, and health hazards and deaths from pesticide poisoning. On top of this, aging farming population and shortage of labourers are some of the main constraints in the Malaysian agriculture scene. Nevertheless, the answer is not to slow agricultural development, but to seek more sustainable production systems and enhance the productivity of this sector.

The recent report prepared by World Bank entitled “The State of Agriculture Report 2008” has dissected the issues plaguing the agriculture sector especially in the developing world and strategies to eradicate poverty among farmers and increase productivity. Among the strategies recommended were improved access to water and irrigation, well functioning land market that could facilitate transfer of lands, proper education system, improved price incentives and quality and quantity of public investments. The report gave major prominence to promising technology and innovation like the genetic modification (GM) technology that can make agriculture more sustainable with minimum tradeoffs.

Below are excerpts from the World Bank report that will provide an insight of its view on GM technology.

“Countries and farmers that are slow to adopt GM technology may lose their competitiveness as global commodity prices fall with broader adoption in large exporting countries. Further delays in developing and adopting GM technology mean further delays in the substantial economic gains that could accrue to poor producers”.

“GM crops are a powerful tool to help farmers adapt to climate change through the more rapid addition of genes for drought and flood tolerance. Continued and unnecessary delays and skepticism are creating serious opportunity costs for society by preventing Golden Rice and other promising GM food crops from reducing malnutrition and saving millions of lives in many poor countries sooner rather than later”.

The Malaysian agriculture sector will grow to greater heights with the merging of conventional and modern biotechnology applications to develop new varieties of seeds, planting materials, biofertilizers, and biopesticides. We need high yielding varieties of crops with good resistance to pests and diseases. Synchronised ripening in the case of some crops, such as cocoa and pepper can help in reducing labour intensiveness. Some of these challenges can be met by adopting GM technology. It is not denied that any new technology comes with risks, however, with a proper risk-benefit analysis, risk assessment and management strategies, and a balanced and proper regulatory system, this technology could serve as a powerful tool to boost out agriculture sector. Ultimately a strong, transparent, cost-effective regulatory system will not only ensure safety but also boost public confidence and foreign and local investments.

Innovations in the agriculture sector have been driven rapidly by private companies in developed countries. Developing countries will only be able to share the pie if the knowledge divide between industrial and developing countries, and private and public sectors is narrowed. To achieve this, sharply increased investments in research and development activities must be at the top of the policy agenda. China and India are moving in the right direction, with investment in agricultural R&D tripled over the past 20 years. These countries should be emulated. With all other countries racing along this line, Malaysia should not be lagging or left behind. We have all the ingredients to success on our plate – good policy, funding capacity, rich biodiversity, and excellent past record in agriculture. What we need now is proper implementation and execution plans and a far-sighted vision.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan