The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that global food production will need to increase by 40% by 2030 to support much of the population growth that will take place in the developing world as people move from rural to urban areas. Currently, two-thirds of the world’s poor reside in Asia and the Pacific region and a recent sharp rise in food prices is bringing food shortages to the region’s poor. Following the world unprecedented rise in cereal prices in 2007 to 2008, the global food prices have hit a new peak in the first quarter of 2011. It is a matter of urgency, therefore, to establish sustainable food security systems in Asia and the Pacific region. Compounded with a dwindling natural resource base, food productivity increases with genetically modified (GM) crops in global agriculture and becomes one of vitally important means to ensure sufficient availability of food and other raw materials for the growing population.
In this case, GM crop is a plant used for agricultural purposes into which one or several genes coding for desirable traits have been inserted into the recipient plant through the process of genetic engineering. These genes may originate not only from the same or other plant species, but also from organisms unrelated to the recipient crop. T he first GM crops became available in the mid-1990s. Since then, the adoption and commercial planting of GM food crops are on a rising trend globally, making an important contribution to the development of crop production systems that requires fewer pesticide applications, reduces the risk of crop losses due to insects and weeds, and increases the yields for all types of farmers, in developed and developing countries . GM crops now occupy over 10% of the world's arable land.
The crop traits targeted through genetic engineering are not completely different from those pursued by conventional breeding. Nonetheless, because genetic engineering allows for the direct gene transfer across species boundaries, some traits that were previously difficult or impossible to breed can now be developed with relative ease. Worldwide on-going research and development for the coming generations of GM crops include improved quality traits such as higher nutrient contents of food products to help improve the health status of consumers, crops modified to produce special substances for pharmaceutical or industrial purposes, and crops designed to be heat, drought or salt tolerant for adopting to climate change, or for the use of low- and no-till farming methods, fuel use and CO 2 emissions to help mitigate climate change and bring about environmental benefits. Some of them are in the pipeline for commercial production.
In spite of manifold potentials, the development and use of GM crops have aroused concerns. There are at least three broad and overlapping areas of concern. Firstly, there are concerns over human health: 1) the use of antibiotic marker genes might increase bacterial resistance to antibiotics. These concerns have led to the development of alternative selectable marker genes; 2) new proteins manufactured in GM crops might provoke unwanted allergic responses; and 3) novel combinations of genes might have longer-term health effects of an uncertain nature and severity. Secondly, there are concerns over environmental effects: 1) insect-resistant crops may adversely affect benign insect species; 2) the adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops might encourage farmers to use greater quantities of broad-spectrum herbicides, with resulting detrimental effects on wildlife; and 3) genes might spread from the crop plant to wild relatives, to produce herbicide-tolerant weeds, far more difficult to control; or insect-resistant weeds, which might affect a much wider number of non-target species. Thirdly, there are concerns about adverse social implications: 1) GM technology could undermine traditional knowledge systems in developing countries; 2) proliferation of intellectual property rights; and 3) the monopolization of seed markets and exploitation of smallholder farmers.
Some of the aforesaid concerns have become the subject of controversial debates. Nonetheless, as GM crops become increasingly prevalent on the global market, it will be very important for producers, consumers, regulators (low-enforcers) and other stakeholders in Southeast Asian countries to understand the potential and regulatory implications of this new trend. In order to fill in the information gap on this issue, FFTC is to collaborate with the other international/regional partners to organize the proposed workshop.
For the further use of GM crops in the future, the workshop participants call for special attentions to the following recent developments: