Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Biotech Revolution in Agriculture: Where is Malaysia?

Agriculture is a dynamic, ever evolving field. The Green Revolution that took place between the 1940s and 1960s transformed the agriculture landscape and successfully led to significant increase in food production. During this period, technologies introduced included agrochemicals, irrigation projects, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, mechanization, and plant breeding. This revolution prevented starvation, increased farmers’ income, and produced high yielding crops, in spite of constant pessimism and scaremongering by critics. Nobel Peace Laureate Prof. Norman Borlaug, the man behind the Green Revolution and his team had to face confrontation with bureaucrats, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitious. Nevertheless, from 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland. This was an increase in the yield of more than 150 percent. Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation. This would have resulted in loss of pristine wilderness, a hundred times greater than all the losses to urban and suburban expansion.

The big challenge in the next 50 years is to double crop production on the same area of land in the face of climate change and decreased water supplies and feeding the anticipated global population of more than eight billion people. The current revolution in agriculture revolves around biotechnology which will be able to meet the challenge. Genetic Modification (GM) technology offers a solution to complement conventional techniques. This new biotechnology can help us to do things that we could not do before, and do it in a more precise, predictable, and efficient way. However, the crucial question is whether farmers will be permitted to use the technology with many naysayers and scare-mongers creating fear about this technology.

Malaysia is in the right track with agriculture identified as the third engine of growth. With a high import bill and acknowledging the fact the agriculture not only provides food, but also feed, fiber and fuel, this sector certainly need to be revisited and revitalized. However, it is important of us to stay focused and be farsighted. Many fail to realize that GM crops have stood the test of time. Last year, 247 million acres of GM crop were successfully farmed by 10 million farmers in 22 countries. Increase in yield, reduced use of pesticides and reduced agriculture footprints were some of the benefits experienced and documented. Malaysia need to be pragmatic in facing our challenges – the huge food import bill, the aging agrarian community, the complete dependency of our livestock industry on imported feed, and the unexploited markets and potential of our fruits, flowers, ornamentals and timber among others.

Any new technology need to be assessed but it should be done based on good science and not swayed by anti-business, anti-technology and anti-globalization sentiments. Skeptics and critics of the GM technology constantly spread junk-science to scare the public but none of their claims of catastrophe have come about. The World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and Academies of Sciences around the world have reported no evidence of health or environment harm from GM crops.

Malaysia has all the ingredients to succeed in the biotechnology sector and we should learn from the other countries that have created a mark in this field to prevent unwarranted delay. A sensible approach will take us a long way instead of reinventing the wheel. The question should be: Where is Malaysia and where do we want to be?
by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

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