PROTESTERS of the recent application of a confined genetically modified (GM) rice field trial at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) Arau station in Tambun Tulang, Perlis, claimed that GM rice threatens Malaysia as a centre of genetic diversity for rice.
GM rice could accidentally contaminate natural rice varieties around the site through
animals, machinery or workers involved. This is a serious biosafety concern but it can be prevented.
The field trial will be performed in an enclosed space with double layers of metal and nylon nets that prevent entry and escape of pollens, insects, animals, and unauthorised access with 24-hour security.
Only trained personnel will have access to the site and all plant materials will be incinerated after harvest at the end of trial. Hence, breach of
containment is unlikely unless there is sabotage, which poses a biosecurity issue.
Protesters also claimed that “genetic engineering is an inherently unpredictable process associated with unintended effects”.
Therefore, they are rejecting the field trial of GM MR219 rice due to the lack of food safety and toxicity results, which ironically, is aimed to gather such data.
Based on most scientific evidence, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not pose higher risks for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms over the last two decades since their introduction to the market in 1996.
The safety of GM crops has been largely based on the absence of evidence of harm in tests instead of actual safety evidence.
A holistic research is therefore needed to consider long-term real field conditions, with comparisons with other production systems, such as integrated pest management, organic and agroecological.
However, if no field trial is allowed, how is this research possible?
This is akin to banning human clinical trials for new drugs.
In Malaysia, there will never be any data to prove the safety of GM rice to people and other non-target organisms if applications for field trials are rejected.
In hindsight, the opponents of GM rice help ensure that safety measures will be implemented to avoid negative ramifications during or after the field trial.
Nonetheless, we can agree that no GM rice should be approved for cultivation without proof of biosafety from field trials.
The coexistence of GM and non-GM crops is possible only through strict traceability and the implementation of buffer zones between farms, as seen in the European Union, ranging from 15m (Sweden) to 800m (Luxembourg).
Pollen barriers — such as hedges, trees or conventional crops surrounding the farms — can prevent pollen movement. The coexistence of GM and non-GM soybean in Canada provides an interesting reference.
In case of inadvertent contamination in organic or conventional farms, a crop insurance programme or liability fund contributed by GM seed producers and farmers can be put in place to compensate for economic losses.
On the other hand, most of the negative socio-economic impacts to subsistence farmers in developing countries adopting GM crops are not from the GM plants per se.
Problems with poverty and loss of biodiversity are usually a consequence of corporate control of agriculture with irresponsible intensive farming.
Therefore, there needs to be regulations in place to ensure transnational agrochemical and seed companies be held accountable for negative impacts brought by GMOs, if substantiated.
Labelling of fresh and processed food and feed containing more than 0.9 per cent of approved GMOs will need to be enforced by government agencies to trace, detect and identify GMOs.
Each GM food must be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction.
Malaysia is blessed to have active non-government organisations who are concerned about the security and safety of food and the natural environment.
They serve as checks and balances to ensure that the precautionary principle advocated under the Biosafety Act is practiced.
While we are contemplating on the approval of the first GM rice field trial, the world has fast moved on to the adoption of gene editing technology with precision genetic engineering of the organism’s own genome without the concerns of transgenes or antibiotic markers.
This GM technology holds great promises to crop improvement with resistance against diseases, environmental stresses and fortified nutrients to provide for growing populations under fast- changing climates.
Most people dislike GM foods because they don’t know what GM foods are and how they are created.
A recent research showed that those who think they know the most about GM foods, in fact know less due to their ingrained beliefs.
Therefore, the public needs to be made aware of the evidence-based science behind genetic modification technology that can be used by local plant researchers in creating more productive, nutritious or hardy crops through open forums and education.
Malaysian global prominence in agribiotech will forever be an illusion if we decide to ban GM crops.
The writer is an associate professor and a leader of Plant Functional Genomics Research Group at Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia