Manila: With food prices hitting record highs the jury is still out in Asia as to whether genetically modified crops hold the key to future food security.
The Philippine government has openly embraced commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) corn, but neighbouring countries appear less than enthusiastic.
“There has been a lot of talk about developing high-yielding crops and crops that can cope with climate change using GM seeds,” said Daniel Ocampo, a genetic engineering campaigner with the environmental group Greenpeace. But, he said, the technology was still a long way from “addressing these needs.”
Even so this has not stopped the Philippines from subsidizing production of GM corn. “This is despite the fact that GM corn and some conventional varieties have the same yield potentials,” Ocampo said.
Japan does not grow GM crops
While Japan does not grow GM crops due to safety concerns among consumers it does import GM grains for use in making products such as cooking oil, animal feed and manufactured goods.
Japanese companies have been reluctant to test the market for consumer-ready GM food because of labelling requirements and public safety worries.
While Japan does not ban GM farming, strict regulation has discouraged corporate investment in the area. With rising food prices causing increasing concern in a country that imports more than half of what it eats, the government has said that GM crops may be a way to ease food security and environmental problems.
S Korea GM seeds not used for commercial cultivation yet
In South Korea, a law which came into effect on 1January this year imposed strict rules on the import of GM seeds.
While there are domestic GM seed programmes for experimental purposes none are for commercial use, an agriculture ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “So far all imported GM seeds have been processed immediately after being cleared through customs,” the official said.
“There have been no cases of imported or home-grown GM seeds being used for commercial cultivation here and we are not considering easing our rules despite price hikes,” he added.
In Bangkok the regional headquarters for the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said it had not seen any signs that governments in Asia were pushing for genetically-modified seeds.
“With modern agricultural technology countries should be able to produce enough food without genetically-modified seeds,” said He Changchui, the FAO’s regional representative for Asia. “You don’t need them. Just try to supply good fertilizer and good water,” he said.
China has research but no commercial aplication
China the State Council, or cabinet, issued detailed rules in 2001 covering safety, labelling, licensing for production and sales, and import safety policies of all GM products.
Xie Yang of the Development Research Centre, a major think tank under the State Council, said: “No genetically modified grain, including seeds, is allowed for edible consumption in China.
“Genetically modified products are allowed for indirect uses, such as making edible oil, but it must be labelled clearly.”
There is successful research in China, but no commercial application yet, he said, adding: “It is said that there are breakthroughs in the research of (genetically modified) rice and corn. But none is allowed on to the market.”
Philippines has a commercial GM food crop
According to Greenpeace’s Ocampo the Philippines is the first country in Southeast Asia, and possibly all Asia, to have a commercial GM food crop.
“The government would say it is because the Philippines should not be late in embracing a technology that promises to help increase the income of farmers and provide higher yields. “But the fact is the Philippines is so close to the U.S. that whatever policies the U.S. have regarding GM crops it usually follows suit.”