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GM crops to cushion food security

Update: March, 30/2009 - 00:00

GM crops to cushion food security

(31-03-2009)

By Thu Hien

Farmers in Le Loi District, Kon Tum Province harvest maize. The plan to introduce genetically modified crops in 2015 is expected to boost consumer choice. — VNA/VNS Photo Tran Le Lam

HA NOI — The expected introduction of genetically modified plants into the Vietnamese market in 2015 will give consumers more choice, says director of the Agricultural Genetics Institute Associate Professor Le Huy Ham.

Vietnamese scientists officially began studying genetically modified (GM) plants in 2006 with the Government’s decision on the national biological technology programme. Prior to the official start, however, scientists had been making preparations for years.

"Creation of a GM plant takes a minimum of seven to 10 years and on average costs at least US$50-100 million," says Ham.

Some of the current GM plants that have been grown in country’s laboratories include the GM papaya, developed at the Biological Technology Institute, which is speck resistant.

The Agricultural Genetics Institute has developed a GM corn resistant to pestilent insects and herbicides. The Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta Rice Institute has developed a GM soybean and a GM cotton, both resistant to droughts.

The State budget funds all GM plant studies in response to the Government’s priority on the national biological technology programme, which follows only the nation’s information technology programme, he adds.

Viet Nam has learned a lot as a follower of global GM achievements made over many years. To date, up to 800 million hectares of GM plants have been grown in 25 countries, says Dr Randy Hautea, Global Co-ordinator of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, which has centres worldwide.

Money saver

"Application of GM technology .is an irresistible trend in the context of the suffering caused among people and plants as a result of climate change, when scientists can hardly forecast when it will be rainy or sunny or when drought or floods will occur," says Ham.

Coupled with the loss of agricultural land for indus-trialisation and urbanisation, and the fast pace of population growth, there is no other way to develop plants that will adapt to the changing climate to maintain the nation’s food security, he adds.

Advantages of GM plants include increased productivity, lower costs, environmental protection and healthier people as a result of reduced pesticide use.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) said that GM crops such as corn, cotton and soybeans could result in huge savings. For example, the use of GM corn could save US$500 million a year.

Farmers welcome the development of GM plants because they will be the first group to benefit.

"Any new method which lessens the hardship for farmers and raises productivity would be welcomed by farmers," says farmer and chairman of northern Nam Dinh Province’s My Thuan Commune’s People’s Committee Le Van Cuong.

At first, farmers were reluctant to use the highly productive corn variety created with the use of radioactivity. However, now this variety accounts for 80 per cent of the cultivation areas in my commune, says Cuong.

"I have known about the introduction of GM plants to farmers. It will be good because the country currently must import a lot of corn due to its low domestic yield," he says.

For 13 years, billions of tonnes of GM plants have been consumed worldwide and they have not been discovered to cause diseases. This proves the safety of GM plants to human health, Ham adds.

Radioactivity has been used to alter plant genes since the 1950s throughout the world and since the 1980s in Viet Nam. However, the technique was then less-advanced than the current method for GM, which uses a portion of one plant’s gene and attaches it to the genes of another, Ham says.

"Nobody is against this so there is no reason to be against this, it just seems to be too new for everybody to accept," he adds.

The country currently imports millions of tonnes of corn, cotton and soybeans every year, so scientists are focused on studying these plants to eventually grow them over large areas, says Ham.

Protecting genes

While the United States, Canada and developing countries in Africa, Americas and Asia support the use of GM plants, many European countries have yet to agree with their use, according to Professor Le Doan Dien, deputy chairman of Viet Nam’s Food Science and Technology Association.

"The argument, in part, is a result of the trade benefits that a few countries have gained because of their advances in genetic engineering. Countries new to GM studies will temporarily oppose GM products in order to maintain a technical barrier for protection of their domestic farmers and enterprises. They will wait until their GM technology is competitive, allowing them to benefit, " says Le Thi Thuy Van, a Financial Science Institute expert.

Many opponents to GM plants say there is no way to ensure that GM organisms will remain under control, and that the use of this technology outside secure laboratory environments represents multiple unacceptable risks to both farmed and wild ecosystems.

"I have no idea why we do not take the time to study ways of preserving our traditional plants, such as the Ha Giang Orange, the Nam Roi Pomelo, the Bac Giang Lychee or Nang Huong Rice, rather than mixing them with other plants that can lead to the loss of the original species," says Dr Nguyen Van Khai, who is well known for his vegetable and plant protection methods.

Existing plants have already experienced the natural selection process for hundreds of years at least. This proves their own strength and pre-eminence. It is impossible for humans to take only a few years to decide which gene can be mixed with another and assume that the new one is more perfect than the old one, says Khai.

Any bad impacts from GM plants will take 50 years, an entire generation, to be known clearly. However, GM plants are the product of our generation’s technological advancements. It shows the variety of choices and the reality at this moment, says Khai.

So, when GM products are introduced into the market, customers should have the right to make a choice. This means they need to have access to all information about GM in order to make a decision, he says.

By the end of this year, specific regulations to clearly define the processes for study, application and use of GM plants to ensure complete safety for people and to avoid harmful environmental effects will be released by the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development.

"Before GM plants reach the people, scientists and the Government must be responsible for their safety," says Ham. — VNS

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