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May 2024

Despite opposition, GMO may be the way forward

Given the current state of climate change and the looming threat to food security, it’s worth pondering whether outright opposition to GMO crops is a good idea

Golden Rice contains beta-carotene, which is not present in white rice. It can combat the vitamin-A deficiency prevalent in developing countries like Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters

Bangladesh made history in 2014 as the first country in South Asia to harvest genetically modified organism (GMO) food crops, with farmers cultivating Bt Brinjal.

Though there was strong opposition to it at the beginning, and some of the commitments made during the introduction – such as field-level monitoring, ethical marketing etc were not followed through – by and large its adoption was successful. 

The country also started the cultivation of Bt Cotton for the first time in 2023. 

Just a few months ago, it appeared that Bangladesh was close to approving the cultivation of Golden Rice as well, when officials from Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) met with Agriculture Minister Abdus Shaheed to seek his support. 

The Agriculture Minister assured them of special initiatives to facilitate the approval process.

The Golden Rice variety has been developed and selected by BRRI and IRRI through genetic engineering by inserting maize genes into the BRRI-dhan-29 rice variety. It contains beta-carotene, which could combat the vitamin-A deficiency prevalent in developing countries like Bangladesh. 

While this new variety received food safety approvals from regulators in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, the Philippines became the first country to approve its commercial production, which kicked off in October 2022. 

In the first three months, the Philippines achieved a harvest of over 100 tons of Golden Rice across 17 pioneer production sites nationwide, showcasing the potential for enhancing agricultural productivity and sustainability. This success story was being cited in Bangladesh to advocate for the approval of Golden Rice in the country.

However, the development faced a significant setback last month when a court in the Philippines ruled against the commercial production of Golden Rice due to safety concerns. This ruling also extended to Bt Brinjal. 

The Philippines court ruled that due to the lack of scientific consensus on the safety of Golden Rice, it should not be commercially cultivated. The judges determined that “according to the nation’s constitution, the government is obligated to adhere to the precautionary principle.”

Hence, “commercial propagation would not be allowed until the concerned government agencies submit proof of safety and compliance with all legal requirements.”

Consequently, the approval of Golden Rice in Bangladesh, which has been under regulatory review since November 2017, has become uncertain, while the cultivation of other GMO crops is also being questioned by environment and food safety activists. 

Dr Mohammad Rafiqul Islam, Senior Scientist of Rice Breeding at IRRI Bangladesh expressed his concerns in an interview with The Business Standard,  saying that with the recent ruling in the Philippines, the approval of Golden Rice in Bangladesh may indeed become “difficult,” as there is a growing opposition within the country towards its approval. 

And he may be right, because in a recent press conference, UBINIG Executive Director Farida Akhter and BELA Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan claimed that India and the Philippines had enacted legislation to cease cultivation of Golden Rice and Bt Brinjal to protect their farmers and citizens, and Bangladesh should also follow suit. 

The resistance to GMO 

It is surprising that despite the myriad benefits of GMO crops, including higher yields, resistance to pests and diseases, enhanced food security, improved nutritional value, adaptability to challenging conditions, positive economic and environmental effects, and reduced food waste, there is so much resistance to it. 

Apparently, one of the main concerns regarding GMO crops like Golden Rice is the possibility of unforeseen health consequences, such as allergic reactions, toxicity, or other negative impacts stemming from genetic modifications.

While it is indeed a topic of ongoing scientific research and debate, there is no concrete evidence yet stating that GMO crops pose any harm to human health or the environment. 

Peer-reviewed publications on Golden Rice biosafety data have demonstrated that “Golden Rice is as safe as ordinary rice, with the added benefit of beta-carotene in the grain” which offers a potent and cost-effective strategy to combat vitamin A deficiency (VAD). 

Notably, some of the studies were backed by global GMO companies like Syngenta – a global agricultural company that develops and sells seeds, pesticides, and other agrochemical products, and was involved in the development of Golden Rice through its collaboration with the IRRI. 

Nevertheless, the same verdict was issued by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (22 February 2018), Health Canada (16 March 2018), the United States Food and Drug Administration (24 May 2018) and Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry (19 December 2019).

This raises questions about whether the decision to stall the production or approval of Golden Rice can really be justified, instead of acknowledging it as a viable path forward to ensure food security and address future agricultural challenges in Bangladesh.

What does science say?

Farida Akhter finds it ironic that non-rice producing countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia have given the clearance for Golden Rice, while a rice-producing country the Philippines, where the IRRI is situated, has stopped its cultivation. 

Also, citing genetically modified soybean oil as an example, agriculture scientist Dr MA Sobhan spoke at the conference that it is the main cause of the increasing trend of autism in Bangladesh. 

“The possible causes of autism have been explored by researchers, who have considered factors such as genetics and infections. Among these factors, one possibility that has been suggested is the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin found in transgenic corn and cottonseed,” he explained. 

A study from the University of California – Riverside actually discovered that soybean oil, commonly consumed in the US, might cause genetic alterations in the brain, but these findings were derived from research conducted on mice. 

Therefore, it’s uncertain if the same effects would occur in humans. Additionally, a study by the Genetic Literacy Project refuted various myths about the origins of autism, including the notion that genetically modified foods are a cause of the condition.

Some studies also suggest that DNA from genetically modified soybeans can be detected in the human gut. However, finding this DNA doesn’t automatically mean it’s harmful or that it turns our bodies into “pesticide factories.” We need more research to understand what this means.

Another study from Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found Bt toxin in the blood of pregnant women, their foetuses, and non-pregnant women. 

It was the first study to show the presence of pesticides linked to genetically modified foods in women, whether pregnant or not. But there is still uncertainty about the health effects of these findings, so further investigation is necessary.

BRRI Director General Md Shahjahan Kabir is confident that there is no risk regarding Golden Rice. “We are constantly adopting other GMO crops. There have been no problems. Therefore, there is no fear of any problem if Golden Rice is approved. Because it will be approved only after testing,” he told TBS. 

Dr Islam of IRRI added that a transgenic brinjal named Bt Brinjal already exists in Bangladesh, which was created by inserting a gene cry1Ac from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into brinjal. This genetically modified brinjal gives resistance against insects such as the brinjal fruit and shoot borer (Leucinodes orbonalis).

“We all are now eating Bt Brinjal, and it is not causing any harm to our bodies. On the other hand, Golden Rice doesn’t even contain any such genes that kill insects. It has been created by inserting genes from maize. So, how can it be harmful to our bodies?” he questioned. 

Has Bt Brinjal bore fruit?

Farida Akhter claimed during the press conference that the earlier GMO effort with Bt Brinjal didn’t yield enough fruits due to concerns over biological contamination and health risks. Moreover, the ongoing debate over the scientific validity and agricultural benefits of Bt Brinjal remains unresolved, she claimed.

But the existing data says otherwise. According to studies conducted by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), the performance of Bt Brinjal was found to be far superior to non-Bt brinjal, with negligible fruit infestations in Bt Brinjal compared to 45% in the non-Bt Brinjal.

A study from Cornell University, based on a 2019 survey of Bt and non-Bt Brinjal farmers, documented the economic benefits of the four existing Bt eggplant varieties through the Bangladeshi market chain and their acceptability to farmers and consumers.

It said that on average, Bt Brinjal varieties yielded 19.6% more than non-Bt varieties and earned the growers 21.7% higher revenue.

This additional revenue per hectare is equivalent to approximately $664 — a substantial sum for resource-poor farmers in Bangladesh.

Another paper co-authored by Md Rafiqul Islam Mondal, former Director General of BARI, also reveals that “Bangladeshi farmers and consumers believe that cultivating Bt Brinjal can bring them many benefits.” 

According to the paper, the farmers and consumers find that Bt Brinjal helps prevent infestation by the shoot and fruit borer insect, allows them to save seeds for the next season since the varieties are not hybrid, reduces their dependence on seed companies for purchasing Bt Brinjal seeds every year, and decreases the need for insecticides.

It also alleviates concerns about health risks, lowers production costs, makes brinjal cultivation more profitable, and leads to economic gains for farmers.

Why we need GMO

If Golden Rice could be commercially harvested and marketed in Bangladesh, then it could pave the way for further  development of other genetically modified crops rich in micronutrients like zinc and iron. 

This is significant due to the fact that malnutrition and food insecurity remain a pressing issue in Bangladesh. 

To put things into perspective, a global report on food crises by the Food Security Information Network (FSIN) revealed that as many as 11.9 million people, or 31% of the analysed population, were projected to have faced “high levels of acute food insecurity” in Bangladesh in 2023. 

Also, according to UNICEF, 28% of children under five years of age in Bangladesh were stunted in 2019.

“Therefore, it’s crucial to supplement their regular diet with essential nutrition elements, which GMOs can provide,” Dr Islam remarked.

In the meantime, GMO crops can also have numerous environmental benefits, particularly in a country like Bangladesh where agriculture plays a vital role. 

For example, reducing the use of chemical pesticides not only decreases their negative impacts on the environment, but also provides health benefits to farmers who no longer need to handle these pesticides.

The increase in yield also means more food can be produced on less land, which can help preserve natural habitats and biodiversity by reducing the need for additional farmland.

Some GMO crops are even designed to tolerate harsh conditions, allowing farmers to practise no-till farming. This can reduce soil erosion, help soil hold more water, and maintain soil nutrients.

To add to that, the trend of agricultural land decline and increase of food demand should also be taken seriously.

Over the last 30-40 years, the availability of agricultural land in Bangladesh has been declining at the rate of 1% per year. On the other hand, the food market in Bangladesh is projected to grow by 9.28% from 2024 to 2028, driven by a variety of factors, including population growth, urbanisation, and changes in dietary habits.

“To address this situation, we must find solutions. And although there may be some challenges along the way, genetic modification will be the ultimate solution,” Dr Mohammad Rafiqul Islam of IRRI concluded. 

It’s not just about science

Taking into account the current evidence of climate change and the looming threat to food security, it’s worth pondering over whether outright opposition to GMO crops is a good idea. But obviously, the debate around GMO crops involves not just scientific, but also ethical, socio-economic, and political considerations. 

To begin with, the ethical marketing of GMO foods should be given utmost importance. 

Labelling GMO and non-GMO foods allows consumers to make informed choices about what they’re purchasing and consuming, but that practice isn’t common yet in our country, as pointed out by Dr Mohammad Zahangeer Alam, Professor of Environmental Science at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University. 

There are strict regulations in place regarding the approval and labelling of GMO food products in Europe. Each GMO product must undergo thorough assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) before it can be approved for sale. 

Many European countries have opted to ban or restrict GMO cultivation on their own soil, but GMO products may still be imported and sold in some cases, provided they meet stringent regulations and labelling requirements.

“I have also seen in the USA, GMO vegetables and other food crops are visible with GMO tags in their supermarket,” said Dr Zahangeer.

According to Farida Akhter, corporate entities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto are covertly operating at the grassroots level with tacit approval from the Bangladesh government, to exert dominance over the global food chain.

She feared that if the government approves the cultivation of Golden Rice, farmers across the country could lose their rights over paddy seeds. 

Currently, farmers have the freedom to store seeds or buy them from traditional markets. However, if Golden Rice is approved for cultivation, they would likely be obligated to rely on the company supplying Golden Rice seeds, she said.

BRRI, however, dismissed any possibility of granting the patent of BRRI-dhan-29 (Golden Rice) to a foreign company. 

Mohammed Abdul Momin, Senior Communication Officer at BRRI, emphasised that it is a variety developed by BRRI scientists with technical assistance from IRRI. Like the other 115 varieties developed by BRRI, its ownership will exclusively remain with BRRI.

“Farmers themselves will continue to produce, collect, store, market, and utilise the seeds of BRRI-dhan-29,” Momin clarified.

Nonetheless, when introducing GMO or any crop in Bangladesh, it’s essential to prioritise farmers’ overall welfare and security.

Bangladesh Farmers Federation President Badrul Alam asserted that the Indian government had coerced their farmers into growing Bt Cotton by offering them bank loans. When the crops turned out to be unproductive, the farmers fell into debt and, tragically, some resorted to suicide. 

This is quite a sensitive issue that requires careful consideration. A thorough review by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) concluded that Bt Cotton, a genetically modified cotton resistant to insects isn’t the sole cause of farmer suicides in India. However, there could still be specific cases where Bt Cotton directly contributed to farmers committing suicide. QR Code

Published Date: May 9, 2024

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