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 the commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) corn, but neighboring 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 the production of GM corn.
“This is despite the fact that GM corn and some conventional varieties have the same yield potentials,” Ocampo said.
While Japan does not grow GM crops because of 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 labeling requirements and public safety worries.
While Japan does not ban GM farming, strict regulation has discouraged corporate investment in the area.
But 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.
“Because of strong public concern about consuming genetically modified food, it does not make business sense for Japanese firms to farm genetically modified plants commercially,” a Japanese farm ministry official said.
“However, given the expansion in the cultivation of GM products abroad and rising demand for food, we are reviewing ways to have the option of commercial farming in the future,” he said.
In South Korea, a law which came into effect on Jan. 1 imposed strict rules on the import of GM seeds. While there are domestic GM seed programs 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.”
In Bangkok the regional headquarters for the Uns 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.
In China the State Council issued detailed rules in 2001 covering safety, labeling, licensing for production and sales, and import safety policies of all GM products.
Xie Yang of the Development Research Center, 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,” Xie said.
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.”
Ocampo said 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,” he said.
“But the fact is the Philippines is so close to the US that whatever policies the US have regarding GM crops we [Philippines] usually follow suit,” he said.
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