Thursday, August 04, 2016

Hope for the Harvest

At the earliest light of day, farmers march to their fields with the hope of a good harvest. They till their land, plant seeds, and perform farming practices that they deem helpful to grow good crops and get high yields. A Filipino folk song best describes the life of a farmer in the field: Magtanim ay ‘di biro (Farming is not a joke).

On the other side of the field, scientists are growing crops not for the yield but to harvest information about the biotech crops they are studying. They carefully follow research guidelines alongside with the protocols implemented by the government with the hope that after all the backbreaking work; the crops they develop will eventually crossover to the farmers’ fields.

The tale of two Bt crops

In the Philippines, genetically modified (GM) maize resistant to a major insect pest and specific herbicides continues to be one of maize farmers' best options. After over a decade of commercializing biotech corn, the Philippines has finally achieved self-sufficiency. This has helped the country to save Php60M from corn imports from 2010-2013.

Eggplant, the top vegetable in the country, has been developed by the University of the Philippines to be resistant to its major insect pest – the fruit and shoot borer. The research started in 2003 following the strict rules implemented by regulatory government agencies. Alongside the conduct of the study, scientists and science communicators were equipping the public with facts about the biotech crop, which could potentially be the first GM food crop in the country. These efforts continued until the last leg of the research, which ended with a bang — biotech critics from Greenpeace filed a Writ of Kalikasan against the biotech crop in 2012.

Guided by the precautionary principle and the infamous Gilles-Eric Séralini’s journal article linking cancer to GM herbicide tolerant maize, the Philippine Court of Appeals gave the favor to the vigilant environmentalists’ plea to stop the trials in 2013. The following year, Séralini's paper was retracted by Food and Chemical Toxicology journal due to its questionable methodology which includes low number of samples and use of Sprague-Dawley rats that are tumor-prone.

The respondents to the case filed an appeal to review the case but the Court of Appeals affirmed its ruling that the trials violated the people’s constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology.  The respondents thus elevated the appeal to the Supreme Court for review.  Interventions from farmers and other organizations have been submitted to the court to reverse the earlier ruling. In December 2015, the Supreme Court declared that the testing of Bt eggplant should be stopped (but it is actually over before the filing of the case). For another blow to the scientific community, farmers and food/feed processors, the High Court also invalidated the Department of Agriculture Administrative Order No. 8, which covers the importation and/or release to the environment of GM plants. But the case did not end there because the Supreme Court ordered for a new set of regulations that will deal with GM crops.

In March 2016, five government agencies released a new set of regulations for GM crops, based on multisectoral public consultations handled by the National Committee of Biosafety in the Philippines. After four months, farmers, researchers and the rest of the community were surprised with another decision from the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the High Court reversed its earlier decision to stop the trials and granted Motions for Reconsideration submitted by the Bt eggplant developers and co-petitioners. Will Bt eggplant see the light of day in the Philippines soon?

Socio-economic experts have projected the potential benefits of Bt eggplant in the Philippines. Based on ex ante case studies, the average potential benefit of planting Bt eggplant ranges from 2,753-6,243 USD per hectare more than conventional eggplant varieties. This significant addition in profit is attributed to increased marketable yield and reduced pesticide use. In addition to higher income, there will also be reduction in pesticide use by almost 50 percent, which also means 19.5% decrease in environmental footprint. Because of decrease in pesticide use, health and environmental benefits will also be acquired. It is estimated that at 50 percent adoption rate of the crop, the benefits to human health is valued at 57,353 USD per year while the collective benefits to farm animals, beneficial insects and birds is estimated to be 155,841 USD per year.

Filipino farmers are eagerly waiting for the resolution to the Bt eggplant case. They are hankering for solutions because they are tired of getting infested produce that affect their families’ income. This could be the reason why a lot of eggplant farmers in the country are dipping their eggplant crops in a concoction of insecticides. They are out of options.

In South Asia, the same biotech crop also faced trial after trial. In India, even if Bt cotton has been proven to be safe and highly adopted by farmers over the years, Bt eggplant or brinjal is still in question.

Bt brinjal battle in Bangladesh

Farmers in the densely-populated country of Bangladesh finally got a taste of the benefits of crop biotechnology in 2014. Due to strong political will, Bt brinjal was approved for cultivation in 2013 and 20 small farmers planted the first seedlings of Bt brinjal on their fields in 2014. It is has been projected that Bt brinjal would generate a net additional economic benefi­t of 200 million USD per year for around 150,000 small brinjal farmers in Bangladesh. This breakthrough serves as an inspiration for other countries who are hoping to grow biotech crops in the coming years. As for the Philippines and India, who are also on the verge on commercializing the same biotech crop but halted by critics, hope remains in the hearts of farmers and scientists that this crop developed to minimize pesticide use and protect farmers’ health would eventually reach the farmers’ fields in due time.

The moral of the story

These stories highlight two main characters on stage: the scientists and the farmers. The scientists actually take two vital roles in the field of biotechnology: one as researcher and another as communicator. In a study conducted by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), it was shown that scientists devote only a small portion of their time for public engagement due to high demand of their research work and other responsibilities. Though there are science communicators who are trained to fulfil such task, the scientists are still on top of the credibility ladder to deliver facts on GM crops to the public. Thus, their efforts are highly needed to feed the minds of the public with right knowledge about biotech crops.

The farmers are the main protagonist in the story of biotech development. The primary goal in developing biotech crops is to be able to help farmers increase their yields and incomes by addressing their major concerns such as pests, weeds, and other stresses. Thus, the first generation of biotech crops are focused on developing the insect resistance and herbicide tolerance of crops.

Just like any technology, biotechnology does not answer all of farmers’ concerns. However, with the documented benefits of biotech crops, such technology cannot be denied for farmers who are looking for solutions to their farming problems. After all, they have a huge task of bringing food to our tables. By 2050, the world’s population may reach 9 billion, demanding for doubling present global food produce. With this demand, every tool in agriculture’s toolbox is necessary to the mend hunger and poverty. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

ISAAA Report Reaches 4.27 Billion People

The latest ISAAA report, 20th Anniversary (1996 to 2015) of the Global Commercialization of Biotech Crops and Biotech Crop Highlights in 2015 (ISAAA Brief 51), has reached about 4.27 billion individuals all over the world through news reports and social media posts. This is the highest media impressions recorded for any ISAAA Brief for the time period of two months since launch.

ISAAA Brief 51 was first launched in Beijing, China in April, catching the interest of the Chinese media. Thus, it has reached 2.9 billion people in China alone. Individuals from other developing countries such as Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Brazil also showed high interest on the ISAAA report. The New York Times and USA Today published articles about the report which were shared over 3,000 times in Facebook and Twitter.

Aside from English, a significant number of articles were written in other major languages such as Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish. Majority of the articles (92%) were written in neutral tone.

The news reports and social media posts are gathered by ISAAA staff, partners, and PR agencies.

Read the concise version of Brief 51, Pocket K No. 16: Biotech Crop Highlights in 2015.

The other Brief 51 materials are also available in different languages:

TOP TEN FACTS about Biotech/GM Crops in their First 20 Years, 1996 to 2015

Executive Summary

PPT Slides and Tables (2 languages)

Friday, May 27, 2016

ISAAA Brief 51 Launched in Beijing; Media Conferences Held in Six Countries

ISAAA has released the 20th Brief in its global status of commercialized biotech/GM crops in Beijing, China on April 13, 2016. Brief 51, 20th Anniversary (1996 to 2015) of the Global Commercialization of Biotech Crops and Biotech Crops Highlights in 2015, authored by ISAAA Founder and Emeritus Chair, Clive James.

Brief 51 companion documents include the Executive Summary, Top Ten Facts about Biotech Crops and a volume of Invitational Essays (Progress and Promise), which are designed to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the commercialization of biotech crops during the twenty-year period, 1996 to 2015 as well as the 2015 highlights.

Year after year, ISAAA prepares the global status report and supports its free distribution to developing countries to provide information and knowledge to the scientific community and facilitate a more informed and transparent discussion regarding the potential role of biotech crops in contributing to global food, feed, fiber, and fuel security, and a more sustainable agriculture.

The 2015 Global Status Report documents the global database on the adoption and distribution of biotech crops in the world in 2015, when ~18 million farmers from 28 countries planted 179.7 million hectares of biotech crops. Below are summaries of the country launches held for the 2015 Global Status Report.


Brief 51 was launched in the ISAAA Press Conference in China World Hotel Beijing on April 13, 2016, attended by 30 representatives of major media outlets (print, online, and TV broadcast). Dr. Paul S. Teng, ISAAA Chair, presented the Highlights of the Report prepared by Dr. James. ISAAA Global Coordinator Dr. Randy A. Hautea discussed the Overview of Biotech Crops in Asia with emphasis on biotech crop planting and regulatory milestones in India, China, Pakistan, Myanmar, Philippines, Australia, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, which has commercialized biotech maize for the first time in 2015.
Dr. Zhang Chun-Yi, Dr. Paul S. Teng, Dr. Randy A. Hautea, Mr. Hernan Viola, and Dr. Dafang Huang at the media seminar in Beijing.

Mr. Hernan Viola, the Agro-Industrial Attaché of the Embassy of Argentina in China, presented an overview of biotech crops and the benefits they generated in Argentina. Dr. Zhang Chun-Yi, Deputy Director General of the Biotechnology Research Institute, CAAS and Prof. Dafang Huang, patron of ISAAA, gave the opening and closing remarks, respectively.

A seminar was conducted on April 14 at the Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) where Dr. Gao Caixia of the Institute of Genetics and Biology, CAS, made a timely presentation on Genome Editing: Progress and Perspectives.  Mr. Mark Petry of the USDA FAS gave a presentation on Reconsideration of New Breeding Technology and Biotech Regulation in the US. Some 150 members of the academe, government regulators, industry, media, students and researchers attended the seminar which was co-organized by CAAS, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the ISAAA China BIC.


Brief 51 was presented at a media seminar held at the Sofitel Plaza Hotel in Hanoi on April 15. The seminar was co-organized by the Agricultural Genetics Institute (AGI) led by Dr. Le Huy Ham. Drs. Teng and Hautea were joined by Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan, executive director of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Center (MABIC), who presented the Overview of New Breeding Technologies and Current Status. Around 100 attendees composed of researchers, policy makers, regulators, industry representatives, and media practitioners attended the event, and received copies of Brief 51 materials that were distributed during the seminar.

Mr. Bhagirath Choudhary

The seminar in Jakarta was held in the Ministry of Agriculture on April 19. Dr. Arujanan presented the Highlights of Brief 51, and also made a presentation on new breeding technologies. Mr. Bhagirath Choudhary, director of the South Asia Biotechnology Center based in India presented the Overview of Biotech Crop Adoption in Asia. 

The event was co-organized by ISAAA and IndoBIC, with around 100 members of the academe, media practitioners, and policy makers, including regulators and industry representatives in attendance. Copies of Brief 51 materials were distributed at the close of the seminar.


The ISAAA AfriCenter in collaboration with Africa Seed Trade Association (AFSTA) and the Association Nationale des Entreprises Semencières du Burkina Faso (ANES-BF), a local seed trade association, launched the Brief 51 in Burkina Faso on April 20, 2016. The event was attended by 40 participants that included seed traders, media representatives, government regulators, and scientists. Hon. Henri Koubizara, a member of the parliamentary commission on economic development, environment and climate change was the guest of honor. Dr. Margaret Karembu presented the ISAAA report highlighting the role of seed traders in the adoption and commercialization of GM crops. Local scientists and regulators shared the status of GM crop research and regulation in Burkina Faso, and the West Africa region at large.
Hon. Henri Koubizara and Dr. Margaret Karembu at the launch in Burkina Faso.


A media conference organized by ISAAA and SEARCA BIC for Philippine journalists and stakeholders was held at Acacia Hotel Manila on April 29. Dr. Teng presented the ISAAA report for 2015. Dr. Gour Pada Das, Country Coordinator of the Feed the Future Bangladesh, and Dr. ASM Mahbubur Rahman Khan, Chief Scientific Officer of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), discussed the highlights of the Bt brinjal project and commercialization experience, respectively. Over 50 representatives from media, academe, research, and private companies attended the event.
Drs. G.P. Das and ASM Mahbubur Rahman Khan (center) at the Manila launch.


In Bangladesh, the Honorable Minister of Agriculture Matia Chowdhury inaugurated the seminar on 20th Anniversary of the Global Commercialization of Biotech Crops and Biotech Crop Highlights in 2015 at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) in Dhaka, Bangladesh on May 12.
Hon. Minister for Agriculture Matia Chowdhury (center) at the Brief 51 launch in Dhaka.

Resource persons in the seminar included Drs. Hautea and Arujanan, and Mr. Choudhary. Dr. G.P. Das facilitated the seminar which was attended by agriculture officials and members of the scientific community in Bangladesh.  During the seminar, Minister Chowdhury emphasized the need for scientific innovations nd collaborations to improve food production and poverty alleviation in Bangladesh. She also stated that the government is pro-active in adopting biotech innovations for introducing improved varieties to their farmers. The seminar was jointly organized by BARI, BARC, and ISAAA.

More information about ISAAA Brief 51 20th Anniversary (1996 to 2015) of the Global Commercialization of Biotech Crops and Biotech Crops Highlights in 2015 are available at the ISAAA website:

Brief 51 companion documents are available for download from the same link.

For more information about ISAAA, visit, or follow ISAAA on Facebook ( and Twitter ( 

Friday, April 15, 2016

2015 Marks Two Billion Hectares of Biotech Crop Plantings

Farmers Reap >US$150 Billion from Advances in Biotech Crops over 20 Years

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) has released this week its annual report detailing the adoption of biotech crops, 20th Anniversary of the Global Commercialization of Biotech Crops (1996-2015) and Biotech Crop Highlights in 2015, showcasing the global increase in biotech hectarage from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 179.7 million hectares in 2015. This 100-fold increase in just 20 years makes biotechnology the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times, reflecting farmer satisfaction with biotech crops.

Since 1996, 2 billon hectares of arable land – a massive area more than twice the landmass of China, 
or the United States – have been planted with biotech crops. Additionally, it is estimated that farmers in up to 28 countries have reaped more than US$150 billion in benefits from biotech crops since 1996. This has helped alleviate poverty for up to 16.5 million small farmers and their families annually totaling about 65 million people, who are some of the poorest people in the world.

“More farmers are planting biotech crops in developing countries precisely because biotech crops are a rigorously-tested option for improving crop yields,” said Clive James, founder and emeritus chair of ISAAA, who has authored the ISAAA report for the past two decades. “Despite claims from opponents that biotechnology only benefits farmers in industrialized countries, the continued adoption of the technology in developing countries disproves that” James added.

For the fourth consecutive year, developing countries planted more biotech crops (14.5 million hectares) than industrialized countries. In 2015, Latin American, Asian and African farmers grew biotech crops on 54 percent of global biotech hectarage (97.1 million hectares of 179.7 million biotech hectares) and of the 28 countries that planted biotech crops, 20 were developing nations. Annually, up to 18 million farmers, 90 percent of whom were small, resource-poor growers in developing countries, benefited from planting biotech crops from 1996 to 2015.

China is just one example of biotechnology’s benefits for farmers in developing countries. Between 1997 and 2014, biotech cotton varieties brought an estimated $17.5 billion worth of benefits to Chinese cotton farmers, and they realized $1.3 billion in 2014 alone,” explained ISAAA Global Coordinator, Randy Hautea.

Also in 2015, India became the leading cotton producer in the world with much of its growth attributed to biotech Bt cotton. India is the largest biotech cotton country in the world with 11.6 million hectares planted in 2015 by 7.7 million small farmers. In 2014 and 2015, an impressive 95 percent of India’s cotton crop was planted with biotech seed; China’s adoption in 2015 was 96 percent.

“Farmers, who are traditionally risk-averse, recognize the value of biotech crops, which offer benefits to farmers and consumers alike, including drought tolerance, insect and disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, and increased nutrition and food quality,” Hautea added. “Moreover, biotech crops contribute to more sustainable crop production systems that address concerns regarding climate change and global food security.”

Following a remarkable run of 19 years of consecutive growth from 1996 to 2014, with 12 years of double-digit growth, the global hectarage of biotech crops peaked at 181.5 million hectares in 2014, compared with 179.7 million hectares in 2015, equivalent to a net marginal decrease of 1 percent. This change is principally due to an overall decrease in total crop hectarage, associated with low prices for commodity crops in 2015. ISAAA anticipates that total crop hectarage will increase when crop prices improve. For example, Canada has projected that canola hectarage in 2016 will revert to the higher level of 2014. Other factors affecting biotech hectarage in 2015 include the devastating drought in South Africa, which led to a massive 23 percent decrease of 700,000 hectares in intended plantings in 2015. The drought in eastern and southern Africa in 2015/2016 puts up to 15 to 20 million poor people at risk for food insecurity and compels South Africa, usually a maize exporter, to rely on maize imports.

Additional highlights from ISAAA’s 2015 report include:
  • New biotech crops were approved and/or commercialized in several countries, including the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Myanmar.
  • The United States saw a number of firsts, including the commercialization of new products such as:
    • Innate™ Generation 1 potatoes, with lower levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen, and resistance to bruising. InnateTM Generation 2, approved in 2015, also has late blight resistance. It is noteworthy that the potato is the fourth most important food crop in the world.
    • Arctic® Apples that do not brown when sliced. 
    • The first non-transgenic genome-edited crop to be commercialized globally, SU Canola™, was planted in the United States. 
    • The first-time approval of a GM animal food product, GM salmon, for human consumption.
  • Biotech crops with multiple traits, often called “stacked traits,” were planted on 58.5 million hectares, representing 33 percent of all biotech hectares planted and a 14 percent year-over-year increase.
  • Vietnam planted a stacked-trait biotech Bt and herbicide-tolerant maize as its first biotech crop.
  • Biotech DroughtGard™ maize, first planted in the United States in 2013, increased 15-fold from 50,000 hectares in 2013 to 810,000 hectares reflecting high farmer acceptance. 
  • Sudan increased Bt cotton hectarage by 30 percent to 120,000 hectares, while various factors precluded a higher hectarage in Burkina Faso. 
  • Eight African countries field-tested, pro-poor, priority African crops, the penultimate step prior to approval.
Looking ahead to the future of biotechnology in agriculture, ISAAA has identified three key opportunities to realize continued growth in adoption of biotech crops, which are as follows:·
  • High rates of adoption (90 percent to 100 percent) in current major biotech markets leave little room for expansion. However, there is a significant potential in other “new” countries for selected products, such as biotech maize, which has a potential of approximately 100 million more hectares globally, 60 million hectares in Asia, of which 35 million is in China alone, plus 35 million hectares in Africa. 
  • More than 85 potential new products in the pipeline are now being field-tested; including a biotech drought tolerant maize from the WEMA project (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) expected to be released in Africa in 2017, Golden Rice in Asia, and fortified bananas and pest-resistant cowpea in Africa. 
  • CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats) a new powerful genome editing technology has significant comparative advantages over conventional and GM crops in four domains: precision, speed, cost and regulation. When combined with other advances in crop sciences, CRISPR could increase crop productivity in a “sustainable intensification” mode on the 1.5 billion hectares of global arable land, and make a vital contribution to global food security.
For more information and other details about the 2015 report, visit

Friday, December 18, 2015

Crop Biotech Update's Trending Stories in 2015

ISAAA presents the top 10 trending news on crop biotech based on the most number of Facebook shares from the website, providing insight into what people find interesting about biotech in 2015.

News such as farmers approval of GM crops, research advancements, GMO safety, biotech event approvals, and beauty queens made it to the list. So sit back and read these fascinating stories that you might have missed.

Photo source: UBIC
biotechnology residential internship for Miss Uganda, together with nine other regional queens was held at the National Crops Resources Research Institute on March 9-12, 2015. The beauty queens were trained on the basics of modern agricultural biotechnology and science communication. Read more.

Miss Uganda 2015/2016, Zahara Nakiyaga, impressed judges and the public with her answer when asked about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This was during the crowning of Miss Uganda 2015/2016 last July. Read more.

Around 100 farmers from different towns in the province of Camarines Sur, Philippines, as well as local agriculture officers, faculty, students, and staff of the Central Bicol State University of Agriculture (CBSUA) were enlightened on the science, safety, and potential benefits of the fruit and shoot borer resistant Bt eggplant developed by the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) during the Public Dialogue on Bt Eggplant held on March 27, 2015 at CBSUA, Pili, Camarines Sur. Read more.

Facebook shares: 265

Photo source: Thinkstock
Why does opposition to biotechnology continue to spread? This was answered by Belgian philosophers and plant biotechnologists from Ghent University using cognitive science in their paper published in Trends in Plant Science. Read more.

ISAAA conducted a study on the trends and factors that affect GM approvals in the last 23 years (1992-2014). The study also provides the rationale for factors affecting approvals, and their implications in GM crop adoption. The results of the study are published in GM Crops and FoodRead more.

Some 50 farmers in the Japanese cities of Iwamizawa and Kitami in the island of Hokkaido signed a petition to support biotech/GM crops, their field trials, and cultivation, in two separate fora on March 26 and 27, respectively. Read more.

Photo source: AfriCenter
Farmers from Kilifi County in the northern part of Kenya have voiced their support for agri-biotech and called on the government to lift the ban on GMOs so as to allow them access to products of modern biotechnology. Read more.

Photo source: Thinkstock
The Ministry of Agriculture of China through its website has issued a statement saying that all certified genetically modified foods that are sold on the Chinese market are safeRead more.

Researchers from the University of Florida have developed genetically modified citrus trees with enhanced resistance to greening, which has the potential to resist canker and black spot. Read more.


Photo source: Thinkstock
India's premier agriculture research body Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has emphasized the importance of genetically engineered crops in bridging the demand and supply gap for food grains in the future. Read more.

Never miss the latest news on agri-biotechnology in 2016. Get FREE Crop Biotech Update subscription now! Go to

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Biotech and the Fear of the Unknown

The American author H.P. Lovecraft said that “The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Many innovations and inventions being used today had to undergo a stage of doubt, resistance, and fear before they were accepted or adopted. The idea of the first automobile was met with much resistance at a time when the horse and buggy was the main mode of transportation and thus considered more safe and reliable. Political, health, religious, and scientific issues were raised against the use of vaccines until its use eventually resulted in the eradication of smallpox and similar childhood diseases. Even pasteurization took more than 30 years for its acceptance after objections were raised such as public health, safety, and perceived economic effects.

Now we see that the scenario of fear remains even on the use of modern scientific tools such as biotechnology. “Fear of (biotechnology) is drowning out its potential benefits,” says Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff, a professor of life sciences and biotechnology, and former Science and Technology Adviser to U.S. Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. She adds that almost all the food we consume is genetically modified (GM) and that “genetic modification is the basis of all evolution and that we have devised ways to accelerate the process.”

All the food we consume is genetically modified, according to Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff.

Unfortunately, Dr. Fedoroff notes: “Contemporary GM crops are being blamed for farm suicides in India, tumors in rats, autism, obesity, and even infertility – even after 25 years of government research and a European Union report stressing that crop modification by GM techniques is no more dangerous than conventional products. The fear is being fuelled by electronic gossip and organizations that exploit GM fears for profits.”

Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, World Food Prize awardee and currently Graduate School professor emeritus of Cornell University was amazed as to “why something as promising as this (biotechnology) was met with opposition by certain advocacy groups.” He took interest in studying the evidence that the advocacy groups were forwarding on GM organisms. He opined that they were reasons other than their concerns for health and the environment. “I believed then and I believe now that the misinformation and the resulting action (or lack of action) were and are harmful to low-income people’s incomes, food security, and nutrition, he said.

Prof. Zerubabel Mijumbi Nyiira, State Minister for Agriculture and elected Member of the Uganda Parliament has this to say on the issue. “Our people have been manipulated and misinformed by anti-science activities and have been led to believe that nothing good can come out of biotechnology. This is short changing the many people who need the technology and disarming the fight against poverty and development.”

In exasperation, Dr. Ingo Potrykus, co-inventor of Golden Rice, a GM rice that contains high beta carotene, articulates his disappointment with all the negativity. “There is not a single documented case of harm since its use! It is, therefore, insane not to use it efficiently and prudently. It is immoral to prevent its use for public good. And it is criminal to prevent it from contributing to food-and nutrition security.”

Regular rice (left) and Golden Rice (right).
Photo courtesy of

Dr. Bruce Chassy, Professor of the University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign questions why there is opposition to and criticism of biotechnology after almost 20 years of successful use on billions of hectares of farmland. “It is not unusual for humans to be cautious and concerned about new technologies… but society will need to move past this opposition in order to capture the benefits offered by biotechnology.”

Mr. Chris Kakunta, a development journalist working for the National Agricultural Information Services in Zambia also shares his thoughts. “As someone who has seen GMO crops in the lab and on the farms and who has witnessed the benefits accruing to farmers, I would say that the media, the industry to which I belong, must work extra hard so that every farmer hears the facts and makes the right decision... It is essential that this information be as pure and untainted as human beings can make it. If the press errs, then the whole of society lives with the same mistake,” the Zambian journalist avers.

The most daunting challenge of biotechnology, according to Professor Wayne Parrott of the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics at the University of Georgia, may not be climate change or pests, but “fear and emotions that do not respond to reason and logic.” Indeed, as Mr. Jon Entine, the founding director of the Genetics Literacy Project and senior fellow at the World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at the University of California-Davis, cautions: “We can face a perilous future if we strangulate biotechnology advances because of misplaced fears.”

The success of modern biotechnology is seen in the millions of hectares of farmlands planted with biotech crops.

Indeed, issues have gone beyond the realm of science. Thus, many experts, be they scientists, policy makers, or media practitioners, have made their life mission to empower the public to make crucial decisions regarding acceptance and adoption of biotech that is based on evidence. Scientists, for example, now realize that it is not enough to just provide information to a public which wants a more active role in science by having their voices heard. And to a public that relies on information about biotechnology from mass media, the role of journalists is important for they set the agenda and tone for the topic.

As the Polish scientist Marie Curie succinctly said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Read more on experts’ views on biotechnology from ISAAA Brief 50: Voices and Views: Why Biotech? available at:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Of Beauty Queens and Biotech

Beauty contests are popular whether in the big cities or villages. Beautiful, intelligent, and talented ladies vie for the different awards at stake, while audiences get an experience of second guessing the choices of judges. While winning local pageants is already an achievement, those who qualify to represent their respective countries in international events get the limelight and a head-start in careers often related to entertainment and media. Such is the case of women who represent their countries in international contests such as Ms. Universe which began in 1952. The logo of Ms. Universe or “the woman with stars” represents beauty and responsibility, hence, a shift from being merely a pretty face to a woman with the potential to influence and spread messages to the global community.

Since the ladies all look pretty and model their costumes and gowns with similar flair, the question and answer portion often becomes the make or break moment. Finalists, often the remaining five contestants, are asked a final question before one is chosen to go overseas to spread messages that span world peace, education, health, and public awareness of current issues and concerns. Just being a representative of women in a global context enables powerful statements to be voiced out and listened to by a captive audience.

Miss Uganda 2015/2016
Zahara Muhammed Nakigaya
The question “What are GMOs (genetically modified organisms)?” would not be a typical question, but wait, it was exactly the one asked of the finalists for the Ms. Universe representative of Uganda. With ease and confidence, 23-year old Zahara Muhammed Nakiyaga of Kampala said, “GMOs are genetically modified organisms made from joining tissue and DNAs of plants to produce more resistant and long lasting crops.” This, she explained after noting that she would use social media positively to sensitize the youth and the public at large about the different projects I want to do to promote rural development.”

The confidence to answer the biotech question was a result of participation of the pageant finalists, in an agriculture-focused bootcamp, supported by among others, the Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) and the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Kampala. The lady candidates spent a three-week activity-filled event on “Promoting agricultural entrepreneurship among the youth” which was the pageant’s theme. They engaged in sessions with scientists, visited laboratories and field trials and demonstrations, and were exposed to evidence-based research in agriculture. In an interview with Uganda’s newspaper, Daily Monitor, Zahara said, “I learnt so many things, including the benefits of modern agriculture, which I want to pass on to other youth during my reign.”

Lady candidates learn about agricultural machineries at the bootcamp.

The innovative approach to making biotech more mainstream in public narratives was the brainchild of the UBIC team led by Dr. Barbara Mugwanya Zawedde. UBIC, a member of ISAAA's information network, is committed to fostering greater awareness and understanding of biosciences in a country that is open to modern agricultural technologies to address productivity and population issues. Dr. Zawedde, however, notes that the “openness of the pageant organizers to have their candidates attend the bootcamp and to include a question for the candidates on biotech, opened up the opportunity to get the public interested in a topic often marginalized from daily conversations.” But more importantly, the pageant candidates found the experience very useful and an eye opener.

The contestants at the NaCRRI laboratory.

Indeed the challenge for biotech communicators is how to encourage public engagement, but not on a playing field that is unfamiliar with the latter. Science and its applications do not have to be robustly tested within the confines of the laboratory or field alone. Rather, efforts must be made to engage the public in new conversations that allow them to view science and technology as integral part of their daily life and incorporate public values into decision-making. UBIC can also be commended for popularizing biotech among the youth in Uganda, through essay contests, internships, and science fairs.

Meanwhile, this event is a unique strategy, one of many other possibilities to jumpstart public engagement that can hopefully make a positive difference. 

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