Genetically Modified Organism: Where Myanmar stands

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Lately, a piece of news came up in the local press on the much talked about and debated genetically modified organism (GMO) issue in the developed  countries, but relatively less visible with little or not much awareness among the general Myanmar public, which is very much the controversial theme of for or against the use of it internationally.

According to the Myanmar Times report, edible crops will not be permitted to undergo genetic modification in Myanmar, said Dr Ye Tint Tun, director general at the Department of Agriculture under the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation.

“We have examined crops to see if they are genetically modified or not. At present, edible crops haven’t been allowed for genetic modification,” Dr Ye Tint Tun said on July 18.

However, non-edible crops will be allowed to undergo such treatment. In Myanmar, the genetic modification of cotton has been successful, said the report.

The National Seeds Committee has examined data related to 30 newly modified seeds and 19 parent seeds of 15 kinds of crops. Up until February this year, certificates were given to 803 different varieties of seeds and 83 varieties of parent seeds of 59 types of crops, Dr Ye Tint Tun said.

As Myanmar’s economy relies mainly on the agricultural sector, the country needs to encourage more private investments in seed production, the committee’s chair and deputy minister U Hla Kyaw said in the meeting.

In the same vein with an affirmative view on GMO for the country, “(We) believe that the benefit of the biotechnology can be fully enjoyed only after development of national capacity to handle risk assessment and risk management and technical research capacity in specific biotechnology sectors in harmonize with the regulations presented by Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB),” wrote Dr. Pa Pa Aung (Deputy Director/ Head), Plant Biotechnology Center, Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation, in his report “Current Status of Biosafety Assessment in Myanmar” Published on June 5, 2017, in LinkedIn.

According to Global Agricultural International Network (GAIN) Report Number: BM 6019, dated 27 January, 2017, Myanmar is in the process of formulating a national agricultural development policy, which incorporates biotechnology. While there are existing laws such as the Pesticide Law, the Plant Pest Quarantine Law, and the Animal Health and Development Law that tacitly deal with biosafety issues, there are no comprehensive guidelines or regulations that govern plant or animal genetic engineering(GE).

Myanmar does not have regulatory controls on the imports of GE food or animal products and lacks the capacity to track these goods. Thus, it is possible that GE derived food and animal feed are being imported into the country.

There is no official information available on the planting of GE crops in Myanmar except for cotton. It is possible that other GE seeds are obtained from neighboring countries such as China.

There have been previous attempts to develop a national biosafety framework, but no law has been passed. The current government has not generated any legislative biosafety proposals, wrote the report.

GMO pros and cons

In a nutshell, GMO stands for genetically modified organism. Genetically modified (GM) foods are made from soy, corn, or other crops grown from seeds with genetically engineered DNA. Some people believe GM foods are safe, healthy, and sustainable, while others claim just the opposite.

The pro qualities of the GMO are adequately summed up by Ahmadreza Mehrabian, assistant professor of plant ecology at Iran’s Shahid Beheshti University, who embraced the genetic modification technology as a solution to food supply in the future, as follows.

“High crop yield per unit area, lower prices, longer storage capacity, resistance to pests and reduction in pesticide use, easing the pressure on the nature and environment conservation are among the main advantages,” said Ahmadreza Mehrabian, according to the Financial Tribune of September 12, 2017.

However he cautioned that ecological standards have to be defined and enforced to reduce the adverse effects.

“If ecological standards are met, GMOs will serve humankind rather than creating challenges,” he stressed.

In an article titled “13 Vital Pros and Cons Of GMOs” posted in vittana.org, seven contra arguments are given which include the following:

  1. They may contribute to an increase in food-related allergies
  2. Genetic engineering can trigger allergies from alternative foods.
  3. GMOs may contribute to antibiotic resistance.
  4. One research paper connects GMOs to cancer formation.
  5. Just 6 companies control almost the entire GMO seed market and 70% of the global pesticide market.
  6. Herbicide resistance happens naturally without the need for genetic engineering.
  7. Independent research is not allowed with GMO seeds from half of today’s controlling organizations.

Of the seven points, health concern number 1 to 4 is crucial in forming the cons opinion among the public, while the monopoly of big few companies, number 5 is also a main concern for unjustified wealth distribution mode regarding the GMO related market.

From health concern point of view the number 4 emphasized: “A paper that was first published in 2013 linked the herbicide that is found in Roundup-tolerant crops to cancer development in rats.  This has caused many to believe that consuming GMO corn could be hazardous to their health.”

Regarding the market monopoly, number 5 wrote: “Much of the negative energy which surrounds GMOs tends to involve Monsanto. There are 5 other companies that, along with Monsanto, control nearly all of the GMO seed market. This include Sungenta, Dow Agrosciences, Bayer, BASF, and DuPont. This means a majority of corn and soybean products are not only profiting the farmer, but they are profiting companies as well. To protect these profits, patents are sought on certain seeds, which has caused legal troubles for some farmers who have had GMO seeds cross-pollinate with their crops, despite not planting GMOs.”

EU position on GMO

While the US lobby on GMO might seem to be in favor of the pros camp according to the available media reports, the EU is more or less on the side of the contra.

Susanne Günther, farmer, blogger, and winner of the InnoPlanta Prize for Objective Reporting on Modern Plant Breeding on July 12, 2018 wrote in Genetic Literacy Project that

  • Germany, like most of Europe, is effectively blocked from growing sustainable genetically engineered crops although the EU remains one of the world’s largest importers of GMO crops
  • Advocacy groups that have supported the illegal destruction of GMO research crops are now guiding rule making on New Breeding Techniques (NBTs), including Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)
  • New coalition German government appears intent on crippling new biotechnologies, even in defiance of regulatory support from EU courts

A Eurobarometer opinion poll carried out in 2010 found that 59% of Europeans believe that GM food is not safe for their health and that of their family. An even larger majority (70%) say that genetically modifying foods is “fundamentally unnatural”, and 61% say that GMOs make them “feel uneasy”, reported Debating Europe, on March 15, 2018.

 

Outlook and perspective

Against this backdrop, theoretically Myanmar should be faced with a hard choice to be for or against the GMO implementation in a large scale. But if the statements of the concerned officials are of any indication, the government’s mind is already made up for the incorporation of GMO application in national  agricultural development policy.

But a close-up following of this ongoing controversial debate will still be vital to weigh the pros and cons before undertaking on a large scale farming of edible crops selectively.

Moreover, public awareness-building and discussion of the pros and cons on the subject should be encouraged by the government, rather than just doling out a top-down directive on such an important issue that has direct impact on the consumers.

In sum,  like Dr. Pa Pa Aung said development of national capacity to handle risk assessment and risk management and technical research capacity in specific biotechnology sectors will be the key, if Myanmar already is decided to embrace GMO as a vehicle for the improvement of the country’s agricultural economy.

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