Opinion: Consuming GMOs is least of our problems

vegetables sri lanka

Oct 04, 2015 (LBO) – For a sector so essential to Sri Lanka, it seems the public understanding of agriculture is rather poor. This may be why we have lagged behind other Asian countries in terms of crop productivity. One sign of this — almost all vegetable seeds are now imported.

Agriculture experts have watched in dismay as Sri Lanka slowly but surely fell behind countries such as Thailand, Korea, Japan and the Philippines.

These countries now export Asian vegetables seeds to Sri Lanka.

I spoke to a hands-on agriculturist from the private sector who did not wish to be named. For convenience, let’s call him Rupasinghe.

“Except for Patola (Snake Gourd), seeds of all other vegetable varieties are now imported,” Rupasinghe said.

“We have not invented a successful variety in the last 30 years, one that farmers will plant. We are only now starting to grow hybrids, a technology that has been around for 85 years.”

It could be confusion around the way we understand agriculture that influences Sri Lankan policymakers, as our innate view is a far cry from reality.

“None of the bananas we eat today come from nature. The ones we eat right now are varieties that have been selected by our ancestors over centuries,” he said.

Our ancestors have picked and regrown fruits and vegetables, with desired qualities such as succulence in red apples or fleshy bananas, that gave us precursors of the fruits and vegetables we have today.

The wild varieties are not as desirable as the ‘domesticated’ varieties. ‘Hybridization’ is the next logical step.

“If you take a high-yielding variety of tomato and cross it with a disease-resistant variety, you can select a line that has both qualities. This is called hybridization.”

This type of enhancement has led to a huge improvement in yields. Farmers quickly adopted it, internationally over the last 85 years, and in Sri Lanka it has grown in popularity over the last 15 years.

Self Sufficiency in Maize

Developing hybrids is a costly exercise. And there is a downside to it. Only a few of the first generation of plant ‘offspring’ have characteristics of the parent lines. This diversity in offspring is a matter of genetics, he said.

This means farmers must keep re-buying hybrid seeds from seed companies if they want to reproduce the high-yielding varieties. Or they can wade through the ‘offspring’ to figure out which seeds have the parent qualities — a process both expensive and impractical.

Sri Lanka became self sufficient in production of Maize three years ago because imported hybrids raised yields per acre by between 200 to 300 percent.

Hybrid rice paddy in China produces over 10 tonnes per hectare of rice. One Chinese farmer claims to have achieved 15 tonnes per hectare. In Sri Lanka the average is 3.5 tonnes per hectare. Importation of hybrid paddy is banned in Sri Lanka.

There are restrictions on introducing new varieties of fruits and vegetables as well. Some varieties now successfully grown were initially smuggled in, Rupasinghe said.

Given the higher yields, Sri Lankan farmers have been won over at the expense of traditional varieties, and it seems this is a matter of economics.

Seed cost is between one to five percent of total cost. Paying for more expensive ‘hybrid’ seeds is negligible to the farmer in the long run, according to him.

For instance, a seed of hybrid ‘Papaya’ may cost 12.50 rupees. A farmer typically plants 600 seeds per acre which would cost 7,500 rupees. With a yield of 150 kilos per plant over three years, the cost of a seed of 12.50 rupees has to be compared with a revenue of 7,500 rupees per Papaya plant, which is negligible he said.

It seems, the constant increase in population, tied to limited land, gives farmers no choice but to improve yields. With little or no public discussion about an optimal population size, the only other option is to improve yields.

“For India or China, the choice is clear. They can’t let people starve,” Rupasinghe said.

Part of the problem has been the confusion between hybrids and genetically modified (GM) crops.

“Seedless watermelons are immediately called GM in our country, when they are in fact hybrids.”

Genetic modification is the process of selecting genes in one species, for example a fish, and inserting it in another, such as a tomato, to enhance qualities such as disease or weather resistance.

The most common modification is herbicide-tolerance. This allows farmers to spray crops with weed killer without harming the crops.

Soybeans, corn and cotton, are the most widely planted types of GM crops especially in the United States and Brazil. Over 90 percent of soya and corn in the US is now produced from GM crops.

Bangladesh has begun trialing pesticide free GM Brinjals, and India has allowed GM cotton.

GMO Food in Sri Lanka?

“I am personally anti GMO, and I wouldn’t mind watching how this progresses. But the question of GM got hijacked because of Monsanto,” Rupasinghe said.

“We should not be under the control of one company. That is wrong,” he said.

Monsanto is a monopolistic controller of world seed and agrochemical markets. It recently made a an offer to buy Syngenta, the world’s top seller of pesticides. Monsanto is also the leading producer of GM seeds.

In Sri Lanka GMO crops are banned, so there is no issue there, Rupasinghe said.

“But we eat GMO. The wheat flour and soya products we eat are GMO,” he said. According to him, up to 90 percent of flour consumed in Sri Lanka is from GM crops.

Science hasn’t yet found evidence that GM is bad for you, although there could be repercussions for the ecology 100 years down the line, he said.

I spoke briefly to the director general of the Department of Agriculture who said some GMO products make their way to Sri Lanka and this is an issue that comes under the Food Department. GMO crops are not grown in the island, he added.

“GMO is, let’s say, the latest technology. But we have been anti hybrids, which is the silly part,” Rupasinghe said.

This explains why Sri Lanka has lagged behind counterpart Asian countries in developing high-yielding varieties.

The constant drive to increase yields has consequences. Farmers spray plants with agro chemicals above recommended limits in the belief that this will increase yields. This has health repercussions. And that does not include a discussion of intensive animal farming, which is on the rise.

Proper scientific tests are not being carried out to verify which chemicals are causing health issues, he said.

A huge amount of water is used to irrigate paddy land which poses questions about the efficient use of water and land. Flooding paddy land to kill weeds appears to be the norm amongst farmers, but this is inefficient when newer techniques such as drip irrigation could be explored.

Water also has an opportunity cost in terms of clean power generation, and some argue the Mahaweli program was not optimized for power generation.

Sri Lanka’s Department of Agriculture maintains lines of traditional crops from over 40 years ago, but farmers are not buying it. The department must now solve this conundrum.

One way to raise farmer productivity is to improve technology, methods and research. The other is to grapple with agriculture economics.

“Agriculture policy requires skills including knowledge of agriculture, finance, science and international market trends,” Rupasinghe said.

Following what Lee Kuan Yew did by hiring international experts, Sri Lanka could hire policymakers who are specialists in agriculture economics, he said.

It seems the key issues in agriculture are now a matter of economics.


(– Chamath Ariyadasa has a masters degree in the social sciences and was a former correspondent for Reuters in Sri Lanka –)