Monday, October 13, 2014

Change of Mood at MOP7

The seventh meeting of the CBD Conference of the Parties serving as Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP/MOP7) convened at the Alpensia Convention Centre in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province, Republic of Korea.

The Cartagena Protocol on is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. It was adopted on 29 January 2000 and entered into force on 11 September 2003. Malaysia signed the Protocol in 2002 was ratified as a Party in 2003.

Socioeconomic considerations and  risk assessment and risk management took the centre stage in this year’s meeting. There was a change in the air with Parties such as Kenya, Ghana,  Paraguay, Philippines, Honduras, Iran, Brazil, and others were stronger than before in emphasizing the need for a balanced and science based approach.

As more countries have realised the impact of GM crops to their economy and farmers, the number of Parties in support of GM crops is in the increase. Brazil who was a strong opponent of GM crops eight years ago has emerged as a gigantic supporter with strong intervention towards science-based provisions. Paraguay was another Party with pro-GM interventions.

One could also sense the change in wind at side events organised by environmental activists where the majority of their audience were pro-GM who questioned the speakers on the validity of their facts and science.
However, there are still Parties who are still trying to keep away from GM crops such as  Liberia, Austria and Bolivia.

The guidance document developed by the Ad-Hoc Technical Expert Group was rejected by Parties who requested for a revision. The reasons given were that the document was not entirely useful and comprehendible to novice risk assessors. Parties also requested the secretariat to add more experts with working experience to the AHTEG.

There was also improvement to the socioeconomic consideration (SEC) document prepared at the previous MOP where Parties wanted a clear indication to spell out that “impact” of GM crops includes both the positive and negative impact. A majority of Parties also wanted the SEC AHTEG to develop the conceptual clarity of SEC before they proceed to develop the guidelines.

The delegates in the contact group which discussed the SEC went “wild’ when the Mauritanian delegate said the word “impact”  only meant negative effects. The entire room objected with an astounding and unanimous “NO”.

Both the negotiations on SEC and Risk Assessment and Management showed the upper hand of Parties who are in support of GM crops. Some observers indicated that future MOPs will see more Parties supporting GM crops as the number of countries adopting the crops increase.

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A long road to transgenic animals

SEPTEMBER will be a hectic month for those involved in biotechnology and biosafety with two prominent international meetings – the APEC High Level Policy Dialogue (Beijing) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety COP-MOP7 (Pyeongchang, South Korea). Important decisions on the regulations of GMOs will be taken here.

In fact, I attended a workshop on animal biotechnology in Brasilia last month and realised that commercialising transgenic animals is a bigger challenge than putting GM crops on the table. There is much more regulatory hurdles for introducing transgenic animals than GM crops, in spite of the fact that animals can be reared in confined environment and the “gene flow” cannot happen randomly, whereby biodiversity can be threatened.

                                            Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan presenting on communication strategies at the Animal Biotechnology Workshop in Brasilia
A professor from UC Davis who is working on transgenic goat that can produce lactoferrin to treat diarrhoea in infants has been waiting for approval for more than 15 years. If this gets into the market, it will have a huge socioeconomic benefits to developing countries where Global deaths from diarrhoea of children aged less than 5 years were estimated at 1.87 million,  approximately 19% of total child deaths. 78% of this happens in Africa and South East Asia regions.

 Another case in point is the Enviropig which was genetically modified to produce the enzyme phytase to digest phytate in the feed. When phytate is digested, the phosphorus released in the manure is reduced by 50-75% which otherwise will contaminate the land and waterways. Farmers also will not have to supplement the feed with mineral phosphate or commercial phytate.

The AquAdvantage Salmon is a genetically modified Atlantic Salmon that can grow twice as fast as the wild Salmon and FDA is yet to give its green light.

There are a number of companies in the USA that are working on cloning better livestock lines but the approvals for these are not anywhere in the horizon. All these initiatives are still snagged in the workbench without regulatory approval.

I feel the USA should show some leadership in this area as the risk assessment and management is well studied and transgenic animals are so much easier to handle than crops.

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Jolting July

WHAT  an eventful month July turned out to be. After an exciting month for football fans all over the world in June, there was a series of  shocking airplane tragedies in July – the worst being the loss of our own airplane – MH17 which was downed by a surface-to-air missile.

Just too many innocent, aspiring and promising lives were lost in a blink of an eye over the Ukrainian airspace. While we lost big number of IT engineers in the MH370 tragedy in March, this time around the world lost a number prominent AIDS scientists and a spokesperson. Another potential scientist is Malaysian Mohd Ali Salim, future lecturer in the field of Neuropsychopathology Development. But no life is above another. The Petri Dish and MABIC team is saddened by every single life that perished in this disaster. We hope the families and the loved ones of the victims will stay strong.

On a lighter note – some takes from the World Cup. I am not a big football fan and would not like to sacrifice much of my sleep to watch the game, but every World Cup I do catch glimpses of important matches. Germany vs Argentina was a must and I made sure to set my alarm clock. While our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak urges Malaysians to emulate the teamwork among Germany players, I saw something else which is equally worth of emulating – an investment and hard work of 10 years. Joachim Loew says the victory was the culmination of a project they started 10 years ago.  It simply goes to say that we cannot achieve anything with flip flop policies and direction, be it in education or research. This is something we really need in Malaysia. I have said this many times and I will repeat myself here – advancement in science and technology does not come overnight. We need to set our research priorities and follow it through till we achieve the desired results. This may take decades but perseverance is the key to success in research, development and commercialisation.

This month I am very happy to announce that the Petri Dish now has an on line version, where the content is partially available. Please visit: We are hoping this will increase the newspaper’s visibility and add value to our partners who are supporting by taking up space, e.g. BiotechCorp, University of Malaya, MARDI and Monash University. I also trust this will help public research to really go public through the centerspread ResearchDigest.

Incidentally, last month we received two opinion pieces from two of our scientist readers – Dr Subhash Bhore from AIMST University and Prof Kalai Mathee, a Malaysian at Florida International University;  on antibiotic resistance. Their articles are published on page 5 & 9 respectively.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue. Your comments are most welcome as usual.

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, July 11, 2014

From the San Diego circuit

I HAD a great time at the recent BIO International Convention in San Diego as part of the BiotechCorp delegation, representing the media. I must say I was elated by the spirit shown by the Malaysian delegation from various agencies in embracing Bioeconomy initiatives. While I was skeptical about the biotechnology/bioeconomy initiatives nine years ago when the National Biotechnology Policy was launched, today I see the fruits of the policy, slowly ripening into maturity.

All Economic Corridors are in top gear and already has tangible results to show in terms of foreign investments and employment opportunities. See reports on page 2-3.

BiotechCorp must be commended for their tireless efforts in courting foreign companies and getting them to set up operations in Malaysia. What is more appealing is that these companies are spread well across the country and not centred in one state. This approach will support biotechnology development and urbanisation throughout the country and provide job opportunities to all Malaysians, not just urbanites. This will also reduce rural-to-urban migration.

The Malaysian delegation was treated with a visit to The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla and needless to mention the level of research at this institute. Fundamental research is the core activity here.

Here is my observation – while FDI is increasing with the entrance of foreign companies into our biotechnology space, commercial value of our local research is seriously lacking. Translational research is not our cup of tea yet. We are still looking for lower hanging fruits – I read about discovery of antioxidants, anti-diabetic, anti-cancer, etc in our local herbs all the time. We are so obsessed with our natural resources and perhaps we think that is the only ingredient for biotech research.

 Maha talking to the Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak in San Diego

As we started the ResearchDigest section in The Petri Dish, I am still waiting to report breakthrough research. We at The Petri Dish are hungry for research news from local institutes.

If only our research activities could be elevated to the next level, the country will be able to complement BiotechCorp’s initiatives in making Malaysia a hub not only for bioeconomy but also biotech research.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Vermont – the First State in the US to Label GM Foods

Vermont was the first state in the US to abolish slavery. Today it became the first for passing a mandatory GMO labelling law. It is really unclear how this move will help consumers. In fact, it will certainly increase food price as labelling exercise would involve a lot of monitoring and testing procedures throughout the agriculture supply chain.

                                             Enjoying a GM corn in the US.

With or without GM labelling, food price is already increasing. GM labelling law will only escalate the rise.
In some cases, the price might remain the same with some essential ingredients being omitted. One example is Post’s Grape-Nut cereals. After going “GM-free”, the recipe has been modified and it no longer includes Vitamin a, Vitamin D, Riboflavin and vitamin B12. Consumers are being short changed for the price they are paying. But are they aware of this?

While I don’t condone GM labelling, it might even be a blessing in the long run.

If we start checking our shopping carts at a grocery mart, almost everything in there contains at least one GM ingredients. High-fructose corn syrup; soy, corn and canola oil; lecithin and other soy isolates; oils, fat and shortening from GM corn, soy and canola; and any derivatives from soy and corn are found in almost all our foods.

Dairy products can be made of milk from cows injected with rBST – a recombinant hormone that makes cow produce more milk. GM corn and soy are fed to almost all poultry and livestock animals. That would leave us with a hand-full of non-GM foods. So, it looks like almost all our foods will carry a GM label, or the food producer will resort to using non-GM ingredients and then increase the price.

Finally, consumers will just get so used to GM food that the label will no longer bother them. GM foods will be the mainstream food. I just think this is inevitable. It is just a matter of time. The anti-GM activists might have won the battle but they will eventually lose the war.

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Media against Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh

Bangladesh took a wise step in Jan 2014 with her approval of Bt brinjal for cultivation, putting India and the Philippines to shame after years of research.

Now that there are happy farmers who do not have to spend thousands for pesticides, the media is at work to discredit the performance of Bt brinjal. The Age reported that the biotech plants did not grow up and came under attack of different pests.

The truth was revealed when Mark Lynas visited the same farm. It turned out that the media has not grown up – no professional reporting, unbalanced views, spinning the truth – all of which is against the very basic principles of journalism. 

The plants yielded healthy fruits. And the farmers confessed that they did not have to use chemicals.

Some farmers feel the chemical companies are behind the propaganda. But as usual thanks to NGOs who are partners to this crime.

Scientists are often bashed when they collaborate with the industry. However, the chemical companies and organic industry that fund anti-GM movement get off scot free.

My observation: NGOs hardly speak to the farmers or have stepped into a farm. Their stories are based on their imagination, themed by their donors’ goals.

                                                      Watch this video by Mark Lynas.

The same farmer and his neighbours who The Age claimed their plants were not growing up. (Photo by Mark Lynas)

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, May 9, 2014

Socioeconomic and Environmental Impact of GM Crops

These are the highlights from the recent report of Dr Graham Brookes, PG Economics.

·         GM crops have led to reduced release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. This is due to less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with GM crops. In 2012, 27 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere was saved. This is equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars from the road for one year;

·         Crop biotechnology has reduced pesticide spraying (1996-2012) by 503 million kg (-.8%). This is equal to the total amount of pesticide active ingredient applied to arable crops in the EU 27 for nearly two crop years. As a result, this has decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops by 18.7%

         The insect resistant (IR) technology used in cotton and corn has consistently delivered yield gains from reduced pest damage. The average yield gains over the 1996-2012 period across all users of this technology has been +10.4% for insect resistant corn and +16.1% for insect resistant cotton;

         The herbicide tolerant (HT) technology used in soybeans and canola has also contributed to increased production in some countries; by helping farmers in Argentina grow a crop of soybeans after wheat in the same growing season, through higher yields and improved weed control;

         Between 1996 and 2012, crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional 122 million tonnes of soybeans and 231 million tonnes of corn. The technology has also contributed an extra 18.2 million tonnes of cotton lint and 6.6 million tonnes of canola;

         GM crops are allowing farmers to grow more without using additional land. If crop biotechnology had not been available to the (17.3 million) farmers using the technology in 2012, maintaining global production levels at the 2012 levels would have required additional plantings of 4.9 million ha of soybeans, 6.9 million ha of corn, 3.1 million ha of cotton and 0.2 million ha of canola. This total area requirement is equivalent to 9% of the arable land in the US, or 24% of the arable land in Brazil or 27% of the cereal area in the EU;

         Crop biotechnology helps farmers earn reasonable incomes for their work. The net economic benefit at the farm level in 2012 was $18.8 billion, equal to an average increase in income of $117/hectare. For the 17 year period (1996-2012), the global farm income gain has been $116.6 billion;

         The highest yield gains were obtained by farmers in developing countries, many of which are resource-poor and farm small plots of land;

         The total farm income gain of $116.6 billion was divided equally between farmers in developing and developed countries;

         Crop biotechnology continues to be a good investment for farmers around the world. The cost farmers paid for accessing crop biotechnology in 2012 ($5.6 billion payable to the seed supply chain) was equal to 23% of the total gains (a total of $24.4 billion inclusive of the $18.8 billion income gains). Globally, farmers received an average of $3.33 for each dollar invested in GM crop seeds;

         Farmers in developing countries received $3.74 for each dollar invested in GM crop seeds in 2012 (the cost being equal to 21% of total technology gains), while farmers in developed countries received $3.04 for each dollar invested in GM crop seed (the cost being equal to 25% of the total technology gains). The higher share of total technology gains realised by farmers in developing countries relative to farmers in developed countries mainly reflects weaker provision and enforcement of intellectual property rights coupled with higher average levels of benefits in developing countries.

Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan in a GM cotton farm in Hyderabad.

Full report can be downloaded from

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Scientists Going Public

A scientist carries out rigorous experiments for years and finally completes a breakthrough research. Eureka! A new invention, solution or product is developed or invented. Series of papers are published in high impact journals and presentations made at prestigious conferences. End of the day – the breakthrough is made known to the audiences – the peers.

The scientists feel the job is done and but now the whining starts:
-          Why there was no media interest in that research?
-          Why industry does not come forward to bring the research to the market?
-          Why the public does not appreciate the work of scientists?
-          Why the younger generation is not interested in becoming a scientist or in pursuing other careers in science?
-          Why the politicians do not give importance to research funding?

Scientists and their institutes need to understand that justice to their research is not done till it is communicated to a wider audience and not just among their peers.

A simple search in the universities’ and research institutes’ websites in Malaysia hardly yield results on the outcome of their research. The front page is often adorned with news about events and collaboration.
A paradigm shift is needed to change the culture. Scientists must understand the importance of communicating their research to industry players, legislators, private donors, media, and the general public.

Physicist John Ziman argues that you are not really doing “science” unless you widely disseminate your work.
It has not become a culture for Malaysian scientists to have blogs to talk about their research. While, publishing scientific papers is central to their professional growth, publishing lay-level articles in media has never crossed their mind as their responsibility.

The Corporate Office in universities and research institutes do not place priority in reaching to the wider public.

With my passion in science communication, I hope to see a change in this culture. The Petri Dish – the first popular science newspaper in Malaysia, is now allocating two pages for a section called ResearchDigest. We intend to publish research news from our local institutes in lay language.

My intention is to increase the pages to give more coverage to local research and bring them to public attention. But how much can be done depends on the support we get from the scientists and their corporate office.

For now I am almost begging institutes to send us news feeds. Emails have been sent out but I don’t see the rush of adrenalin among the officers to grab the chance of going public.

Being trained as a scientist and a science communicator, I don’t blame the media for not giving space to science. I see serious flaws in our scientific institutions. But this can be remedied if there is a will and passion.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Global Staus of Commercialised GM Crops 46 -2013

Eighteen Million Farmers in 27 Countries Chose Biotech Crops in 2013, Global Plantings Increase by 5 Million Hectares

Inaugural plantings of biotech drought-tolerant maize in U.S.; further developments in drought-tolerance technology across the world

BEIJING (Feb. 13, 2014) — The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) today released a report which indicates more than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops in 2013, reflecting a five million, or three percent, increase in global biotech crop hectarage. 2013 also marks the first-ever commercial plantings of drought-tolerant biotech maize in the United States.
Global biotech crop hectarage has increased from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to over 175 million hectares in 2013. During this 18 year period, more than a 100-fold increase of commercial biotech crop hectarage has been reported. The United States continues to lead global biotech crop plantings at 70.1 million hectares or 40 percent of total global hectares.
“Accumulated hectarage of biotech crops planted worldwide to-date stands at 1.6 billion hectares or 150 percent of the total landmass of China,” said Clive James, author of the report and ISAAA Founder and Chairman Emeritus. “Each of the top ten countries planting biotech crops during 2013 planted more than one million hectares, providing a broad foundation for future growth.”
According to the report, more than 90 percent, or 16.5 million, of farmers planting biotech crops are small and resource-poor. Of the countries planting biotech crops, eight are industrial countries and 19 are developing countries. For the second year, developing countries planted more hectares of biotech crops than industrialized countries, representing confidence and trust of millions of risk-adverse farmers around the world that have experienced the benefits of these crops. Nearly 100 percent of farmers who try biotech crops continue to plant them year after year, the report notes.
Two new drought-tolerant crops
Given the importance of drought on crop productivity, exacerbated by climate change, drought tolerance is judged to be an important development. In the United States, approximately 2,000 farmers in the drought-prone Corn Belt planted about 50,000 hectares of the first biotech drought-tolerant maize. Also, Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, developed and approved planting of the world’s first drought-tolerant sugarcane (the first biotech sugarcane to be approved globally) and plans to commercialize it for planting in 2014.
“Biotech crops are demonstrating their global value as a tool for resource poor farmers who face decreased water supplies and increased weed and pest pressures – and the effects of climate change will only continue to expand the need for this technology,” said James.
Biotech drought-tolerant maize technology has been donated to Africa through the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, a public/private partnership by Monsanto and BASF, funded by the Gates and Buffet foundations and implemented through the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). Planting of biotech drought-tolerant maize in Africa is expected in 2017. Drought is the biggest constraint to maize productivity in Africa on which 300 million Africans depend for survival.

Status and opportunities for biotech crops in China
China, with a population of 1.3 billion, is the most populous country in the world. Between 1996 and 2012, biotech cotton in China generated economic benefits valued at over $15 billion, with $2.2 billion occurring during the past year. Biotech crops also provided important benefits to farmers and the environment in China, with insecticide use decreasing by 50 percent or more on biotech cotton.  
“China has already experienced the benefits of biotech cotton for fiber, and could also benefit from biotech maize through increased and improved grain production for animal feed,” said James. “China could also benefit from the approval of biotech traits for rice, the staple food crop in Asia.”
Some observers speculate China might be paving the way to approval of a major biotech crop, like the phytase-maize that received biosafety clearance in 2009, when two biotech rice traits were also approved. The feed demand of sustaining China’s 500 million swine and 13 billion poultry is causing the country to become increasingly reliant on imported maize, to supplement the 35 million hectares of maize it grows.
Increased hectarage in developing countries
Growth in developing countries continues to expand. Latin American, Asian and African farmers collectively grew 54 percent of global biotech crop hectares (up two percent from 2012), thereby increasing the hectarage gap between industrial and developing countries from approximately 7 to 14 million hectares between 2012 and 2013, respectively.
South America collectively planted 70 million hectares or 41 percent; Asia collectively planted 20 million hectares or 11 percent; and Africa collectively planted just over 3 million hectares or two percent of the global biotech hectarage.
“Growth in industrial countries and mature markets in developing countries continued to plateau in 2013 as adoption rates were sustained at 90 percent or more, leaving little room for expansion,” said James. “During the past year, growth was led by developing countries, namely Brazil, which posted an impressive 3.7 million hectare or 10 percent increase, reaching 40.3 million total hectares. During the next year, growth is expected to continue in developing countries – and Brazil will continue to lead the way, consistently closing the gap with the United States.”
Success in developing countries can often be attributed to public/private partnerships. For example, Brazil, in cooperation with BASF, has developed and approved a herbicide-tolerant soybean that is ready for commercialization, having successfully completed all steps necessary for development and deployment of the product. Such partnerships instill pride which generates confidence and incentive necessary for success.
EMBRAPA in Brazil, using entirely national resources, has also developed and achieved approval of virus-resistant beans, which is an important contribution to sustainability.
Breaking the impasse to approve biotech crops
Developing countries are continuing to push forward with biotech research/development and commercialization, and have demonstrated the political willpower to approve new biotech crop traits, the report noted. Approvals in 2013 include:
  • Bangladesh approved its first biotech crop, biotech eggplant (Brinjal), developed through a public-private partnership with an Indian company, Mahyco. Bangladesh serves as an exemplary model for other small and poor countries – it broke the impasse of the approval process to commercialize biotech eggplant in both India and the Philippines. Bangladesh is also pursuing approval of Golden Rice and biotech potato.
  • Indonesia approved drought tolerant sugarcane for food use, with plans to cultivate in 2014.
  • Panama approved planting of biotech maize.
Continued developments in biotech crop technology combined with increased adoption by small and poor farmers are important factors in the future of global biotech crop adoption. Substantial developments in 2013 include:   
  • In Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan increased biotech cotton hectarage by an impressive 50 percent and 300 percent, respectively. Also, seven additional countries are conducting biotech crop field trials as the penultimate step to approval for commercialization. These countries include: Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda.
  • The Philippines is nearing the completion of its field trials with Golden Rice.
The lack of appropriate, science-based, cost- and time-effective regulatory systems continues to be the major constraint to adoption in Africa (and across the world).
Status of biotech crops in the European Union
The modest hectarage in the European Union (EU) was up 15 percent between 2012 and 2013. Five EU countries planted 148,013 hectares of biotech maize, up 18,942 hectares from 2012. Spain led the EU with a record 136,962 hectares of biotech maize, up 18 percent since 2012. Romania maintained the same hectarage as 2012. Portugal, Czechia and Slovakia planted fewer hectares of biotech maize than 2012, which the report attributed to burdensome EU reporting procedures for farmers.
Biotech crops benefit food security, sustainability and the environment 
Between 1996 and 2012, biotech crops have made positive contributions through: decreased production costs and increased productivity (estimated at 377 million tons) valued at US $117 billion; environmental benefits by eliminating the need for 497 million kg (a.i.) of pesticides; reduced CO2 emissions by 27 billion kg in 2012 alone (equivalent to removing 12 million cars from the road for one year); conserving biodiversity by saving 123 million hectares of land from being placed in agricultural production during the period 1996 to 2012; and alleviating poverty for 16.5 million small farmers and farm families, totaling more than 65 million people.
By the numbers
  • United States continued to be the lead country with 70.1 million hectares, with 90 percent adoption across all crops.
  • Brazil ranked second for the fifth consecutive year, increasing its hectarage of biotech crops more than any other country – an impressive record increase of 3.7 million hectares or 10 percent from 2012.
  • Argentina retained its third place with 24.4 million hectares.
  • India, which displaced Canada for the fourth place, had a record 11 million hectares of biotech cotton with an adoption rate of 95 percent.
  • Canada was fifth at 10.8 million hectares with decreased plantings of canola but maintained a high adoption rate of 96 percent.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

She Speaks for the Farmers and NOT TO the Farmers

Read this article to understand the other side of Vandhana Shiva, well known for her stunt against GM crops and Green Revolution. How do we trust a women who falsify her academic qualification?