Agribiotechnology in a nutshell module

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BY JAYASYALINY JAYARAJ

LOS BANOS: Twenty-five delegates from eight Asian countries attended the second Asian Short Course on Agribiotechnolgy (ASCA) from Dec 2-6. The event was put together by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA) Southeast Asia, the Malaysian Buiotechnology Information Centre and Monash University Malaysia.

The first such course was held in Malaysia last year and the second held here hosted delegates from Taiwan, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines. ASCA aims to expose Asian policymakers, regulators, scientists and industry players from both public and private sectors to biosafety regulations and their impact on national biosafety systems.

It also focuses on connecting the dots between research, effective communication and science-based regulations enabling more research to leave the lab and move to the next level of implication. ASCA gives Asian regulators and scientists an ideal alternative for capacity building programmes in these areas, where previously they travelled to US universities for such short courses. This did not only reduce their training budget but also provided the opportunity to more personnel, enabling the creation of bigger pool of experts.

ASCA helps to fossilise institutional memory on CBD history and legal tools in Asian institutes. This is important to make such capacity programmes sustainable and scalable. The course took the participants through the value chain of agribiotechnology, from understanding the science behind agribiotechnology; ensuring its safety; regulating it, bridging the technology with the society to create awareness and acceptance; cultivation; and the next generation of technologies.

Agribiotechnology

Participants were guided through the shift from ancient biotechnology to modern biotechnology and its applications, genome editing and genome editing policy approaches by experienced researchers in their respective field of expertise. They were exposed to breeding techniques and tools used in plant and animal breeding such as molecular markers, hybrids and transgenics as science advanced over the years. Dr Rhodora R. Aldemita, Director of ISAAA SEAsia Center gave a brief introduction on the global status of biotech crops, animals and products that are in the pipeline. Delegates were also given a session to share the current status of modern biotechnology and the implementation of GM crops as well as biosafety regulations implemented in their respective countries.

Immersion experience

Participants were also given the opportunity to visit the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) which holds some 127 000 rice accessions from more than 120 countries around the world. They were also given the opportunity to step into the 1.7oC cold room where the rice seeds are temporarily stored after collection for distribution. Rice seeds stored for long term storage also known as base collection are kept at a temperature between -18 to -20oC. Participants were then brought into the rice fields at IRRI where field trials were being conducted. Another exciting session was during the lab demonstration at IRRI’s genetic transformation laboratory. There, researchers from IRRI conducted a step by-step session on how genetic engineering and tissue culture is done using rice embryo. They also visited the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) where we had the opportunity to take a glimpse at studies carried out on genetically modified egg plants. Philippines is still awaiting approvals for the cultivation of Bt eggplant. At present, the only country in South Asia with the introduction of Bt eggplant is Bangladesh. The country has seen tremendous increase of profits for farmers and dramatic reduction in the use of pesticides.

Farm visit

Delegates were taken on a four-hour drive to Pampanga to visit a farm grown with only genetically modified (GM) corns. They learnt how the corns are grown in order to overcome failure to the adaptation of GM corns in fields. In contrary to popular myths that GM crops would destroy all insects in the field, the delegates saw grasshoppers and beetles on the leaves of the GM corns.

Another false information about GM crops that they affect soil health was also demystified through the farm visit. The owner of the corn farm grows rice, legumes and vegetables in rotation with corn in the same field over the years. There was no need for spraying pesticides or weeding. This saved a lot in labour cost. The local farmer has seen an increase in yield from nine metric tonnes to about 10 to 12 metric tonnes per hectare after the adaptation of GM corn in his field.

The delegates continued their journey to the Bayer Crop Science RIB Plant in Pulilan, Bulacan which serves as a Refuge-in-aBag (RIB) facility. This facility is the first in Asia and the second in the world with capabilities for RIB blending and packing of corn as well as quality testing, inventory management and warehousing facilities. The RIB concept is implemented as a key Insect Resistance Management (IRM) strategy to preserve the long-term effectiveness of the Bt corn technology in which it helps prevent and delay insects resistance by serving as host to susceptible insects that can mate with the rare resistant insects surviving exposure to Bt proteins in the Bt corn crop.

Communicating agribiotechnology

Here comes one of the most important element of science – communication. Understanding and adopting science practices are easy but when it comes to conveying science knowledge to the general public, we all somewhat stumble at it. The Global Coordinator of ISAAA, Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan emphasized on the importance of communicating science to all levels of science stakeholders. “Everyone wants validation. That’s human nature. We tend to only listen to those who agree with us. Same goes to science,” she said. It is very important to have the right balance of persuasion when it comes to communicating science. Always try to build trust and creditability as these are the keys to effective communication, Mahaletchumy added.

Besides, we were also taught on how to make science likeable in social media through practices such as targeting, branding and storytelling. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are best mediums to resonate our interest with that of the audiences’ if these practices are effectively implied.

Legislation

Last but not least, ASCA also covered topics on the Convention on Biological Diversity, Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, The Nagoya-KL Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress and many others to help Asian stakeholders understand the international biosafety regulatory instruments and how they impact national biosafety systems. Introduction to these areas will enable the delegates to develop and implement the national regulatory framework in their respective countries.