By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
In part 3 of our Proactive Reindustrialisation series, we focus on not creating a new industry but reinvigorating the much-maligned agriculture industry of Malaysia through a close collaboration between the farming and scientific communities in expanding the production and cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
What are GMOs?
Whilst GMOs can be broadly defined as organisms which have been altered genetically to express certain favourable traits, including products of cross-breeding and natural recombination, the term is currently used for organisms whose DNA have been altered in the laboratory through synthetic methods. These are highly sophisticated and have the ability to specifically splice genes exactly to the necessary specification, especially through recently developed techniques like CRISPR (although the latter is more correctly defined as gene editing as it doesn’t involve introducing new genes into an organism from other species, rather only edits existing genes. It is, however, faster and more precise than traditional GMO technology).
In practice, there are a few uses of GMOs which have become quite popular recently. One such use is, to make seeds for crop cultivation in producing better foods in terms of nutritional value, disease resistance, increased yield and less demand on resources necessary. Of these, herbicide resistance is a trait that has become hugely popular due to the problem of weed infestations causing crop yields to diminish greatly.
The Need for GMO Crops
GMO crops are able to fulfill many socioeconomic criteria necessary to achieve an inclusive, progressive society for the many. With increased yield, more nutritious products and less dependence on resources such as land, water and pesticides, production cost can be lowered, product prices can be cheaper, more nutritious food can be provided to all communities and less secondary effects such as water pollution by pesticides can be achieved.
For Malaysia’s case, RM 50 billion was spent in 2018 to import food for human and animal consumption. This represents a huge potential to expand our agriculture sector to offset this massive expenditure. This must be taken into consideration when constructing agriculture policies for Malaysia. Direct profits are not as important, if the costs are lesser than that which would have been spent on food imports, it would suffice.
One crop that can be a possible first venture for Malaysia is rice. Malaysia has already developed some variations of the MR219 cultivar rice for drought resistance, glyphosate (the active ingredient in popular herbicides like Roundup) resistance and rice disease resistance. In fact, confined field trials are about to be done in a restricted access, insect-proof nethouse, far away from other possible parent organisms. Golden Rice, a genetically engineered variety of rice to biosynthesize beta-carotene to be consumed in areas deficient of dietary vitamin A, has obtained multiple approvals to be cultivated as well, though not yet in Malaysia.
Even non-genetically modified organisms can benefit from genomic techniques, as our southern neighbours in Singapore have cultivated their own Temasek rice variety from a method called Marker-Assisted Breeding (MAB), which pairs traditional farming methods with cutting-edge, laboratory-based technology similar to genetic engineering.
Problems With GMO Crops
The utilisation of GMOs is not without its controversies. Environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of Earth often hold campaigns against the cultivation of GMOs for a variety of reasons. Some of these seem reasonable, some are not, yet all can be handled with proper planning, legislation and education. Unreasonable complaints have to do with the health risks of GMOs, as numerous studies have shown GMOs to be as safe as non-GMO foods. Moreover, the perception of GMOs somehow being too synthetic is unfair to GMOs as well, since cross-breeding and other farming methods to produce crops with preferable traits is arguably just as synthetic.
On the other hand, the most reasonable complaint has to do with the corporatisation of agriculture. When big companies own the means of seed production, there is a greater possibility of corporate manipulation of farming communities. Large tracts of land are cordoned off for massive cultivation programmed specifically for the type of crop that company has manufactured. Farmers are disallowed from keeping or sharing seeds and have to rely on the seed company to sustain their plantations. This opens up the possibility of price gouging on the part of the seed manufacturer, driving down the profits of small farmers.
With most GMO seeds resistant to herbicides, especially glyphosate-based herbicides (GBH), there is a conflict of interest in companies providing both the seeds and the herbicides. Monsanto, which sells both GMO seeds and GBH, is probably not pushed to innovate their products to respond to changing farming conditions. For example, herbicide resistance was supposed to reduce GBH usage, and it did in the beginning, but as time went on, GBH usage skyrocketed. This is because weeds that once were effectively killed by GBH developed resistance towards the herbicides in question. Farmers, instead of innovating new methods to handle weeds, just used more GBH. This was not stopped by Monsanto as GBH is their product. Why would they want to reduce its usage?
The issue comes down to GBH control. At the end of the day, of all synthetic herbicides, GBH are the most effective and least damaging environmentally and to humans. However, its overuse has caused herbicide resistant weeds, causing the yield of GMO plants gradually become similar to that of non-GMO crops. Similarly, studies have shown resistance in insects grew in areas where proper resistance-management strategies were not followed. For these traits to still be viable, properly integrated pest-management strategies should be introduced. Therefore, it is imperative that regulatory control and oversight be developed to ensure enough training, technology and knowledge are available for any farmer in Malaysia to develop sustainable farming practices.
GBH have also been found to be potentially dangerous to humans and the environment, particularly to marine life. Obtaining minimum safe levels of exposure for these herbicides rely not only on their glyphosate content but also other chemicals mixed in with it, including certain surfactants which can be quite toxic. Hence, it is wise when dealing with these herbicides to have proper regulatory oversight, training for farmers on how to safely use them and consistent testing to ensure the safety levels are adequate.
Innovations With GMO Crops
Whilst there are crops that have been genetically engineered with other favourable characteristics, like drought resistance and nutritional content, by far the largest share has to do with pest and pesticide resistance. As discussed above, this innovation has associated risks and problems. Whilst the methods to handle them detailed above should be sufficiently effective, what is a better way forward is to focus on other types of genetic engineering which do not share similar drawbacks.
Golden Rice is an example of such a GMO. Similarly, high oleic soybeans for enhanced soybean oil profile, high laureate canola oil for better edible oils and Innate potatoes with lower asparagine content, which turns to possibly carcinogenic acrylamide when cooked, are other examples of this as well. Depending on private businesses alone to drive this type of research is unwise, as years of companies like Monsanto and Bayer have shown little progress in this area. What is necessary is a shift in the focus on crop genetic engineering.
The most straight-forward way to achieve this is not relying on them at all. Liberasi sees the best opportunity forward as a state-owned, research-focused entity not focused on generating profit. Such an entity can be funded by a local trust or sovereign wealth fund, parked under a ministry as a department or incorporated in such a manner that its performance is measured in terms of overall impact to food security, resource utilisation and advancement in nutrition.
Alternatively, private companies may be involved, working very closely with the state, either as partners in a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) or through clear directives coupled with strong regulation. This might ensure a smoother generation of GMOs but leaves at least some control outside of the state’s hands and may lead to an eventual collapse in the industry due to private profit maximisation not incentivising innovation.
As has been proven so far, the largest contributions to research and development always come from the government. Why should it be any different now? Especially advantageous with the state-owned model is that the corporation does not have to be profitable to be considered successful. The total savings from the agriculture industry through GMOs can be used to justify its operations.
As can be seen so far, the potential for GMOs in crop cultivation is great. Focusing on Malaysia’s massive food import bill alone shows a tremendous potential market in GMO cultivation. However, much work is still to be done to address the problems associated with GMO crops before wide-scale cultivation. As Liberasi understands it, the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) is preparing to conduct a confined field trial on a GMO rice tolerant to glyphosate and crop diseases. We applaud this foresight but would like to further advise the government of Malaysia to be careful when conducting this trial and considering further steps. We have summarised our recommendations thus far here, and have sent the same document to the relevant ministries (the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry).
We also have noted resistance against this trial by the Food Security And Sovereignty Forum, Malaysia. Their concerns are legitimate and should be considered. We also call upon the government to give more detailed analysis of the GMO rice with respect to its impacts on the environment (although we also note the confined trial application here which does contain some of these details). This clearly shows that we must tread carefully with GMO crops but, if we do, there is no reason why we cannot benefit from them.
Featured Image from The Atlantic