Opinion

‘Emulate Brazil, China, not Europe'

Vishwanath Kulkarni Harish Damodaran | Updated on November 15, 2017 Published on February 17, 2012

Dr Clive James, GM technology evangelist and founder, ISAAA

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China is spending more than $1 billion on crop R&D alone.





India should look at Brazil and China, and not Europe or other rich world countries, when it comes to agricultural biotechnology and commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops, according to Dr Clive James of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

The agri-biotech lobby group estimates the total area planted globally under GM crops to have touched 160 million hectares (mh) in 2011. This is as against a mere 1.7 mh in 1996, when the first crop incorporating this controversial technology was commercialised.

“It is remarkable that out of the total 160 mh for 2011, almost 50 per cent was accounted for developing countries. Their share will easily surpass that of industrialised countries this year, which is contrary to the prediction of those who claim the technology is only suited for rich nation farmers,” Dr James told Business Line in an interview.

US LEADS ACREAGE

The US continues to occupy the top slot in terms of overall acreage as well as the number of crops grown that bear transgenic traits — i.e. genes belonging to unrelated plants or even completely different species, including bacteria. But apart from the US, Canada is the only other industrialised country among the top ten that have more than a million hectares under such crops.

Second in that list is Brazil, which grew 30.3 mh of biotech crops in 2011, accounted for almost a fifth of total GM acreage globally. “There are two remarkable things about Brazil. The first is an effective regulatory system that approves products for commercialisation within a reasonable timeframe. The CTNBio (the Brazilian equivalent of India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) cleared as many as eight events in 2010 and another six last year”, noted Dr James. This is as against the total six ‘events' (a specific gene construct representing a particular trait for a crop) approved by the GEAC in India since 2002. While India is ranked fourth in terms of GM acreage, at 10.6 mh, it is, however, for just a single crop: Cotton.

PUBLIC SECTOR R&D

As against this, Brazil's 30.3 mh includes herbicide-tolerant soybean (20.6 mh), Bt/herbicide-tolerant maize (9.1 mh) and Bt/herbicide-tolerant cotton (1.6 mh). But that is not all. The second remarkable thing that Brazil has done, as Dr James pointed out, is to invest heavily in public sector agri-biotech research through Embrapa, which is the counterpart of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research here.

“The Embrapa's annual budget has grown from $ 478 million to $ 1.1 billion between 2006 and 2011. It has also developed a home-grown biotech kidney-bean resistant to the golden mosaic virus, which was approved for commercialisation last September. In addition, it has jointly developed with BASF a herbicide-tolerant GM soybean, which, too, has been cleared by CTNBio,” Dr James added.

The Embrapa-BASF biotech ‘Cultivance' soybean is genetically engineered to tolerate application of imidazolinone herbicides. It thus competes with Monsanto's already existing GM soybean that is resistant to the more widely deployed broad-spectrum herbicide, glyphosate.

According to Dr James, what Brazil has done is to experiment with all three streams of biotech crop research. The first is the private proprietary technologies of multinationals, the second being public sector research through Embrapa, and the third in the form of public-private partnership as in the case of Embrapa-BASF's ‘Cultivance' soybean.

POISED FOR BIG LEAP

Coming to China, the country's current GM crop acreage of 3.9 mh is less than that of India. Also, much of it comprises Bt cotton; while China has also commercialised biotech papaya, poplar, tomato and sweet pepper, these cover only a few thousand hectares.

But this is set to change hugely in the next couple of years, as China has granted biosafety approvals for two big ticket GM crops. The first is phytase maize, which will allow pigs to digest more phosphorous, resulting in faster animal growth and more efficient meat production. The second is Bt rice, for resistance to stem borer insect pest.

Significantly, the Chinese have made a conscious choice of developing their own and not relying on the proprietary technology of multinationals. The phytase maize, for example, has been developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, though licensed to a Nasdaq-listed domestic company, Origin Agritech Ltd.

“China is spending more than a billion dollars on R&D alone, which is more than that of even Monsanto's. There is also tremendous political support for that, as its policy makers believe there are unacceptable risks of being dependent on imported technologies for food security. The results of that will start showing from 2013, when commercial planting of phytase maize takes off,” Dr James said.

The lessons from both these countries point to the need put in place proper science-based and cost/time-effective regulatory systems for approving commercial release of GM crops. This has to be combined with political will and support for the technology — of the sort that the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, has openly extended.

India, on the other hand, has not approved a single GM event since 2009, with a virtual moratorium placed on new releases, whether Bt brinjal, herbicide resistant cotton and maize or biotech hybrid mustard. In that sense, it seems to have veered closer to the European view that has traditionally regarded GM technology with suspicion.

However, Dr James claimed that even the Europeans are slowly having a change of heart. “Last October, 41 leading Swedish biological scientists spoke about the need to revise European legislation to allow society to benefit from GM crops using science-based assessment of the technology. Also, the planting of Bt maize in the European Union went up by 26 per cent to 114,490 hectares in 2011,” he said.

The real test case as far as Europe's position on agri-biotech would be the planned release in 2014 of ‘Fortuna', a GM potato resistant to the late blight fungal disease, best known for causing the notorious Irish potato famine of the 1840s. The release is, of course, subject to regulatory approval. In the meanwhile, vocal opposition to the technology is said to already prompted the German chemical maker to consider moving its GM crop research operations to the US.

Published on February 17, 2012

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