Ensuring food security while preserving the environment is a major challenge for
agriculture in the Asia Pacific region. This region, which is inhabited by 60 per cent of the
world’s population, including some of the world’s poorest people, has only 30 per cent of
the landmass. To address this issue, farmers are adopting Genetically Modified crops as a
primary means of protection against various biotic and abiotic stresses. In the Asia Pacific
region Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, Philippines are into GM crops farming. Let’s
take a closer look.
The Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds market in Asia is expected to grow due to the increasing demand for seeds with enhanced nutritional values and longer shelf life. This trend is driven by a rising need for food security and the rapidly growing population. Additionally, the market is propelled by urbanisation and the increase in disposable income, which further drives the demand for food products. The use of GMO seeds to increase crop yield is another significant factor that will contribute to the growth of the market. The demand for animal feed and the adoption of biofuels produced from genetically modified energy crops such as wheat, sugarcane, soyabean, and corn will also positively impact the market’s growth rate.
The government of Indonesia has recently approved genetically modified (GMO) wheat designed to resist drought. This wheat variety called HB4, was developed by Argentine biotech firm Bioceres Crop Solutions Corp and has been approved for use beyond animal feed, coinciding with a major drought in Argentina’s productive farmland. The approval by an Asian country is a significant achievement for GMO wheat, which was once considered unacceptable by many consumers. Data Bridge Market Research predicts the genetically modified (GMO) seeds market will reach a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.60 per cent during 2022-2029.
India and China are the top producers of genetically modified (GM) products in Asia. As of now, India only cultivates GM cotton, while China produces GM varieties of cotton, poplar, petunia, tomato, papaya, and sweet pepper. Other Asian countries that grew GM crops are Pakistan, the Philippines and Myanmar. Bangladesh approved the commercialisation of GM crops in 2013, while Vietnam and Indonesia followed suit in 2014.
In the GMO seeds market, there are several major players such as Bayer AG, BASF SE, Corteva, CALYXT, CANTERRA SEEDS, DLF Seeds A/S, Dow and DuPont, J.R. Simplot Company, JK Agri Genetics Limited, KWS SAAT SE & Co. KGaA, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Limagrain Cereal Seeds, LLC, Limagrain, Mahyco, Nufarm, Sakata Seed America, Stine Seed Company, Syngenta Crop Protection AG, and Bejo Zaden B.V.
In India, only Cotton is commercially cultivated as a GM crop. Trials for other crops like brinjal, tomato, maize, and chickpea using transgenic technology are underway.
The GEAC has approved the release of GM mustard hybrid DMH-11, bringing it closer to commercial cultivation. There is an ongoing legal case in the Supreme Court questioning permission for transgenic food crops due to concerns about farmers using banned herbicides and seeking a stay on GM mustard.
About two decades ago, genetically modified cotton known as Bt cotton was introduced in India. This crop variety involves using strains of a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis that produce toxins harmful to different types of insects, particularly bollworm larvae that tend to attack cotton crops. The goal of introducing Bt cotton in India was to reduce the need for insecticides when farming cotton.
Bt cotton has been widely adopted across India since its introduction. Nowadays, the majority of cotton grown in India uses Bt technology. Although the estimates of Bt cotton adoption vary from state to state, at least 80 per cent of cotton grown in each of the nine cotton-growing states of India is Bt cotton.
The introduction of Bt cotton in India has been a topic of debate and research for the past 15 years. According to scientists, Bt cotton has had a positive impact on cotton production, trade, farmers’ livelihoods and the environment. Studies suggest that genetically modified crops, including Bt cotton in India, have reduced the use of chemical insecticides by 37 per cent, increased crop yields by 22 per cent, and boosted farmer profits by 68 per cent.
The Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has recently called for public comment on the world’s first genetically modified banana.
Scientists from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have successfully created the world’s first genetically modified (GM) banana. This particular variety of Cavendish bananas, named QCAV-4, has been specifically designed to help save the species. The GM version of this tropical fruit has been engineered to be resistant to a fungus known as Panama Disease Tropical Race 4 (TR4), which poses a significant threat to the $20 billion global banana industry.
Dr Sandra Cuthbert, CEO of FSANZ said “Banana line QCAV-4 was genetically modified to provide resistance to the fungal disease Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) also known as Panama disease.”
“This is the first whole GM fruit assessed by FSANZ and, if approved, would also be a world-first approval for a GM banana. The FSANZ assessment for the GM banana considered the specific genetic modification process, potential unintended changes and the nutrient content compared to a non-GM food of its type and any potential allergic or toxic effects in humans,” said Cuthbert.
“Our safety assessment found no potential public health and safety concerns. The GM bananas are as safe as non-GMO banana varieties”, stated Cuthbert. She added that if the application was approved, food derived from this GM banana would be permitted for sale in Australia, including as fresh fruit, dried or frozen banana or banana pulp.
Australia has been an early adopter of GMO technologies in the Asia-Pacific region. By 2018, the country had almost 774,000 hectares of GMO crops, with three main crops dominating the fields: Bt and HT cotton, which accounts for over 99.5 per cent of production, HT canola, which represents 30 per cent of total canola plantings, and safflower. Additionally, other GM crops are undergoing experimental field plantings, including banana, barley, ryegrass, mustard, sugarcane, and wheat. In the past, there have also been trials of rice, clover, maize, poppy, papaya, pineapple, and grapevines.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) granted approval for the sale and use of food derived from GMO rice (Golden Rice) in 2017. However, civil society groups in Australia and New Zealand contested this approval. They raised concerns about the soundness of the FSANZ decision and appealed for a review of the approval. The safety assumptions made by FSANZ were based on data provided by IRRI and corporate proponents while ignoring crucial scientific data on the potential health risks of GMOs to humans. Despite this, FSANZ granted approval for several other GM crops from BASF (soybean), Monsanto (corn), and J.R. Simplot (potato) in 2020. In May 2022, FSANZ also approved the sale and use of food derived from genetically modified drought and herbicide-tolerant wheat developed by Bioceres Crop Solutions of Argentina.
In August this year, Bangladesh introduced two types of GM cotton to increase crop yields and reduce the need for imports. This is the second GM crop introduced in the country, following Bt brinjal in 2014.
Muhammad Abdur Razzaque, the Agriculture Minister of Bangladesh said, “The introduction of Bt and hybrid varieties could help meet around 20 per cent of the domestic cotton demand, which amounts to approximately 1.5 million bales. Spinning and weaving industries need an additional 85 lakh bales of cotton to produce yarn and fabrics for export-oriented garment factories.”
“Acc growers can only supply two lakh bales of cotton. As a result, Bangladesh imports a significant amount of cotton from countries such as India, Pakistan, Brazil, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, and Central Asian countries, spending around Tk 33,000 crore annually,” he said.
The production cost of Bt cotton is 12-15 per cent lower than local varieties, with an average yield of 4,500 kg per hectare, 15-20 per cent higher.
In early 2010 GM eggplant was rejected in India and was later approved and commercialised in Bangladesh. GM eggplant crop was developed by Mahyco India. It was provided to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) through a public-private partnership between Mahyco, Cornell University, Sathguru Management Consultants, Bari and USAID. With the partnership, BARI reproduced nine varieties of local eggplant, with only four varieties approved and released for commercial farming in October 2013.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Bt eggplant has become a widely-adopted biotech product in Bangladesh in just seven years. Researchers from the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) are developing two eggplant varieties that can withstand eggplant fruit, shoot borer (EFSB) and bacterial wilt.
Bt brinjal farmers in Bangladesh have increased their yield and reduced chemical pesticide application since its adoption in 2014. A government impact assessment study in 2018 found that farmers who cultivated Bt brinjal gained 55 per cent higher income and were less prone to health hazards caused by using chemical pesticides
During the 2020-21 crop year, around 65,000 farmers in Bangladesh have been cultivating Bt brinjal in 12,500 acres of land. The quick adoption of Bt brinjal has allowed farmers to achieve the dual benefits of reducing costs and minimizing the use of chemical pesticides.
Bangladeshi farmers cultivate more than 50,000 hectares of land and produce over half a million tons of brinjal each year. However, researchers are optimistic that the increased use of Bt brinjal and the introduction of bacterial blight-resistant varieties will allow farmers to grow more brinjals in less land.
A few months back, Shunfeng Bio, a prominent gene editing company in China, was granted the first-ever safety certificate for plant gene editing by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. The certification was obtained during the release of the ‘2023 Agricultural Gene Editing Biosafety Certificate Approval List’. This move by China reinforces its dedication to enhancing biological breeding practices while also ensuring the safety of seeds.
In 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released the ‘Guidelines for the Safety Evaluation of Gene Edited Plants for Agricultural Use (Trial)’. These guidelines established policies and management measures for the use of agricultural gene editing technology for the first time. The guidelines differentiate gene-edited products from genetically modified crops by stating that gene-edited products do not contain foreign genes. This distinction is based on the scientific attributes of the products.
In April 2023, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released the ‘Regulations for the Evaluation of Gene-Edited Plants for Agricultural Use (Trial)’ which provided clearer classification standards for gene-edited plants and simplified the review process. This enhanced the operability of the Guidelines, making it easier for farmers to comply with the regulations.
It is worth noting that China is currently the leading country when it comes to gene-edit crop patents, with approximately 75 per cent of all agricultural patents in this area originating from China. Rabobank reports that research institutes in China have already published more market-oriented gene-edited crop research than any other country. Given China’s significant investment in this area, the country is expected to adopt a more generous or relatively open policy in the coming years regarding the release of gene-edited crops.
The Philippines recently approved two GM crops, canola for food, feed and processing as well as cotton for commercial cultivation.
The Philippines is a notable example of a country that has embraced biotech companies and is currently the only Asian country with the highest number of GMO commercial plantings. Since the approval of GM corn for commercial use in 2002, the Philippines has given the green light to 129 GM crops. Out of these, 42 have been approved since October 2020, with 30 of them intended for direct use as food, feed, or processing, while the other 12 are meant for commercial planting.
The Philippines has become the first country in Asia to approve the commercial use of GM biofortified Golden Rice. The rice is enriched with beta-carotene, which is the precursor of Vitamin A and is said to help combat malnutrition and Vitamin A deficiency. In July 2021, the Philippines’ Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) granted a biosafety permit for the rice’s commercial cultivation, marking the first time a GM rice variety has been authorised for commercial planting. However, this move poses a significant risk to the hundreds of thousands of indigenous rice varieties that have been developed by farmers in the region.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has developed a GMO rice, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID, and the Philippine Department of Agriculture – Biotechnology Program Office. Golden Rice, as it is commonly known, has now been enhanced using gene editing technology to insert traits such as drought and pest resistance.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was long believed to have found a solution for Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which causes immunity deficiency syndrome and blindness among children, through Golden Rice. However, the institute has now revised its claim and no longer asserts that Golden Rice can fix or prevent blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency.
Ensuring food security while preserving the environment is a major challenge for agriculture in the Asia Pacific region. This region, which is inhabited by 60 per cent of the world’s population, including some of the world’s poorest people, has only 30 per cent of the landmass. To address this issue, the adoption of GM crops as a primary means of protection against various biotic and abiotic stresses. It is predicted that the GMO seeds market will reach a CAGR of 7.60 per cent during 2022-2029. To address the issue of food security in Asia GM crop farming could be a sustainable solution.