GM Crops To Boost Malaysia's Food Security

Linda Khoo and Nur Syuhada Shamsudin Bernama 22 Oct 12;

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 22 (Bernama) -- Rapid population growth, climate change, escalating food prices, diminishing agricultural land and water resources pose a serious setback in increasing food output to feed the world's fast growing population.

Hence, scientists have to seek better solutions for farmers for increasing productivity on smaller tracts of land using less water, energy, fertilisers and pesticides.

Local researchers, like their counterparts in the developed world, believe that Genetic Modification (GM) Technology could well be the holy grail for enhancing the country's food output in the future.

GM crops not only help to boost yields and nutrients, but also enhance taste and quality, improve resistance to diseases and pests which in turn reduces the use of pesticides and herbicides.

Malaysia is making significant progress in GM crops with the first genetically modified crop set to make its way to the farms or fields within the next six to eight years.


GM crops not only help to enhance output using fewer resources but also help in addressing many nutritional and health issues confronting Malaysian society, like those pointed out by the Malaysian Agricultural Research Institute's (Mardi) Deputy Director of Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering Programme, Dr Indu Bala Jaganath.

"While Malaysia is not on the verge of a food crisis, it is facing nutritional insecurity where communal diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes and cancer are increasing.

"Genetic Modification (GM) can be applied to increase the nutritional and therapeutic status of the crop," explained Dr Indu, providing the Transgenic Golden rice variety being developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to address Vitamin A deficiency as an example.

Mardi has already embarked on developing a variety of genetically modified rice with better traits, including better adaptability to climatic changes such as drought, submergence (flood) and tolerance/resistance to pests and diseases.

"We cannot depend on conventional agriculture techniques alone.

"We need robust technological innovations to revolutionise current agriculture to meet food self sufficiency. We have to radically transform agriculture.

"GM technology may hold the key. We cannot afford to overlook GM technology, in our efforts to address the global challenges of growing population, compounded with changing climate and limited fertile land," she said to Bernama.


Dr Indu noted that Mardi is developing GM rice that could withstand sheath blight caused by the fungus Rhizoctonia Solani. Sheath blight is a major disease that affects the yield and grain quality whereby farmers suffer huge losses.

As rice varieties resistant or tolerant to the disease are lacking, farmers and researchers cannot depend on conventional breeding methods to improve the resistance to sheath blight.

Looking at the fact that there is no effective chemical or agricultural practice to control the disease, Mardi has adopted the GM approach to develop rice varieties resistant to the disease.

"We are currently working at the lab and confined field level. Our next step will be to carry out open field evaluation where comprehensive bio safety analysis will be conducted.

"We can see the first GM crop in Malaysia within the next six to eight years. However, it all depends on the success of the trials and the stability of the incorporated gene," she said.


Meanwhile, Mardi's Director of Biotechnology Research Centre Dr Umi Kalsom Abu Bakar said that transgenic papayas with delayed-ripening traits were being developed to enable the fruit to stretch its shelf life and maintain its quality during shipment.

"If we want to export our papaya by air, it is very costly. To reduce post-harvest losses and improve the quality and marketability of papayas, Mardi is developing delayed-ripening papaya to slow down the ripening process to help the exporters.

"The idea of developing papaya with longer shelf life for export has been there for quite some time but we did not have the particular traits then. Now, since we have the traits, we hope to develop them further and commercialise them soon," she said.

Several potential transgenic Eksotika papaya lines with delayed-ripening characteristic have been produced and further confined field trial evaluation is on the way to validate the required trait in the GM papaya.

Dr Umi added that apart from this Mardi has been developing papaya varieties with resistance to dieback disease that destroys papaya plants.

Papaya dieback disease was first reported in 2003 and the disease caused papaya export volumes to plunge from 57,000 tonnes in 2003 to 10,000 tonnes in 2008, and the losses amounted to RM51.5 million.

"Papaya dieback disease is a threat to Malaysia's papaya plantation industry. Our scientists are working hard to identify the resistant gene that can withstand the papaya dieback disease."


Meanwhile, the Director of PG Economics Limited, Graham Brookes said that GM crops have reduced pesticide use by 438 million kgs and this has decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use in the area planted with biotech crops by 17.9 per cent.

Brookes, who is also the co-author of the seventh annual report on "Global Impact of Biotech Crops: Economic and Environmental Effects 1996-2010", said GM crop has significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices.

In 2010, this was equivalent to removing 19.4 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or removing 8.6 million cars from the road for a year.

"After 16 years of growing and consuming biotechnology crops, there has been no credible and documented evidence of any negative safety, health or environmental impact," he said referring to the scepticism harboured by the opponents of GM crops.

In a nutshell, GM crops could well be the answer for feeding mankind in the future and Malaysia is well aware of the GM crops' vast potential in achieving its food security target.


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