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Opinion divided

Released at: 03:33, 08/10/2014

Opinion divided

GM crops must be evaluated carefully and the necessary conditions created before mass production begins in Vietnam.

by Ngoc Anh

Genetically modified (GM) crops have been studied around the world for decades, with mass production first staring in 1996. Such crops have proved to bring many benefits to farmers, contributed to ensuring food security and sustainable development and help with the fight against climate change. Unlike elsewhere around the world, however, where hundreds of various types of GM crops are considered part of the agricultural market, in Vietnam they are still in the testing stage.

As a developing and an agricultural country, Vietnam has identified the development and application of GM crops as an important task in its agricultural biotechnology programme. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), GM crops have received investment in research and testing since 2006, after the “Key Program on Development and Application of Biotechnology in Agriculture and Rural Development to 2020” was approved under Decision No 11/2006/QD-TTg. In recent years some enterprises have experimentally planted GM corn in a number of regions but there are now only a handful of models on a scale of 1.5 - 2ha per variety per model.

Conflicting views

Putting GM crops into mass production has been a controversial issue and been met with negative opinions from scientists. According to many experts, certain economic benefits may be affected if GM crops were planted en-masse, as farmers would be squeezed on price if they wished to purchase GM varieties because they are dependent on seed supply companies, and the agricultural environment would be altered. Moreover, many scientists are also concerned that GM crops have a negative impact on human health when put into mass production.

Conversely, Dr Le Huy Ham, Director of the Agricultural Genetics Institute, said that the research and application of science and technology in GM crops have brought about great benefits, including an increase in crop yields, higher farmer incomes, guaranteed biodiversity, and adaptation in limited cultivation areas. Mr Nguyen Hong Chinh, Director of International Relations at Dekalb Vietnam, part of the under US mega-corporation Monsanto in Vietnam, said that over the last 20 or so years GM crops have become the preferred choice in many countries around the world. “When there are limited land and resources, we should always try to improve crop productivity,” he said. “With GM crops, productivity on the same cultivation area increases by 10 to 15 per cent.”

Research conducted by Dr Graham Brookes and Dr Peter Barfoot from PG Economic, a specialist provider of advisory and consultancy services to agriculture and other natural resource-based industries, entitled “GM Crops: Global Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts 1996 - 2012”, which was released in May, showed the continued benefits of GM crops to the global economy and environment. “After 17 years of wide application, GM crops have helped to innovate and create environmentally-friendly cultivation methods and also significantly improved productivity and farmers’ incomes,” said Dr Brookes. “Half of the income from cultivation and the major benefits to environment have been gained thanks to changes in pesticide use and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries.” In terms of economic benefits, in 2012 the direct global farm incomes from GM crops were $18.8 billion and have increased by $116.6 billion since 1996. He also said that there is no evidence of negative impacts from GM crops on human health and the environment.

In Vietnam, it is worth noting that while local scientists are still divided over the application of GM crops, a great deal of GM corn has been imported. Figures from the Vietnam Feed Association show that 1.34 million tons of corn and 897,000 tons of beans were imported in the first eight months of 2013 for use as animal feed. According to Vietnam Customs, in January 2014 alone there were 580,000 tons of corn imported, five times higher than in January last year. Vietnam’s main import markets are Thailand (accounting for over 90 per cent), Brazil, Argentina, the US, and India, which have the largest cultivation areas of GM crops in the world.

The results of the “Surveying the Presence of GM Organisms in Agricultural Raw Materials and Other Processed Products in Circulation in Ho Chi Minh City” research project, conducted by the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Science and Technology and Quality Assurance and Testing Centre 3 in 2010, showed that 111 out of 323 samples, including potatoes, corn, and soy, taken randomly from 17 markets and supermarkets in the city were genetically modified. So it can be said that GM products are present in virtually every meal Vietnamese people consume despite not being published on their labels.

Setting the future

Dekalb Vietnam, Pioneer Hi-Bred Vietnam under the US’s Dupont, and Syngenta from Switzerland were licensed to carry out laboratory research and tests on seeds in Vietnam in 2011. Nonetheless, they are yet to be permitted to sell GM varieties in Vietnam, despite interest from Vietnamese farmers. Interest was expressed and questions asked about GM crops at a conference on “Biotechnology Plants - Related Issues” that took place in northern Bac Giang province in late May. Mr La Van Doan, Vice Chairman of Bac Giang Province’s Farmers Association, expressed concerns about importing GM varieties or GM crops and asked why the government didn’t provide support so that they would have GM varieties for planting.

Several participants also expressed concern about, when using GM varieties, whether Vietnam would depend on foreign companies to provide seeds, which may create a monopoly and see local supply suffer. In response, Dr Ham said that this is not a serious issue. “Firstly, we have been using imported seeds already,” he said. “For example, our hybrid rice seeds are imported. Moreover, the import of animal feed reflects the lack of initiative in domestic supply sources.” Secondly, he went on, is the competition factor. When hybrid corn was planted in Vietnam in the past, domestic productivity was very low and local supply was lacking. However, the presence of hybrid corn facilitated the development of science, with 40 to 50 per cent of hybrid corn seeds now being provided by local companies. “Therefore, I think that the entry of GM varieties will contribute to creating the conditions necessary for the competitiveness and development of domestic science in the study of selecting and creating seeds,” he said.

According to Dr Brookes, GM crops are yet to become popular in Vietnam but studies have proved the positive impacts of GM maize, soybeans, and canola around the world. In Vietnam it can be seen that, in the first stage, productivity hasn’t increased as much as in other countries, rising just 10 per cent. But in other countries that have applied the technology over the longer period of time, such as the Philippines, productivity has increase more than 20 per cent. “Additionally, the effectiveness of the existing technology has been proved worldwide, and when that technology is used in Vietnam it will also be effective,” he said.

Dr Truong Trong Ngon, Head of Molecular Biology at the Biotechnology Research and Development Institute at Can Tho University, said that science can’t claim that any technology has no risk. “GM crops could reduce certain risks to the environment when associated with traditional agriculture but may also contain new challenges that need to be dealt with,” he said. “Society will have to decide when and where GM crops are safe enough.” It is necessary, he concluded, to evaluate all GM crops carefully before putting them into mass production.

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