Malaysia: “comfortable” without GMOs (for now)

Hello! Apologies for the delay in blogging. I just arrived in the Philippines and since I’m a country behind, I’ll update you on what I was up to in Malaysia last week. I spent a total of 10 days in Kuala Lumpur, where I spoke with a variety of researchers and met some great people from around the world.
While in KL I visited the country’s main public research hub, the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI). Here they have a few projects to insert transgenic traits into local varieties of papaya. The main project that I want to discuss is a papaya that MARDI scientists are engineering to ripen up to 10 days later than usual, which will hopefully give it a longer shelf life and reduce waste due to spoilage. This project interested me because in most cases, seed companies develop biotech traits such as resistance to drought, insects and herbicide in order to benefit farmers. Some people argue that one reason consumers are skeptical of GMOs is that they don’t witness the direct benefit of the technology besides possibly lower food prices. On the other hand, delayed ripening papaya would affect all members of the value chain. With delayed ripening, it would be possible to sell Malaysian papayas in more distant markets such as the US, which would improve the price that farmers could fetch. Consumers would also enjoy fresher fruits.
As an environmentalist I’m a bit skeptical of the carbon cost of a trait that would allow my food to come from even farther away. At the same time, we currently waste approximately a third of the food we produce globally, which is a complete loss of resources with no benefit. It’s interesting to see an example of biotechnology being researched to address this issue, and is intriguing to think of other possibilities.
The delayed ripening papaya project is currently in the glasshouse field trials, meaning that it has a long way to go before it reaches farmers or markets. Papaya production in general is currently down in Malaysia because of a bacterial disease. MARDI scientists are also researching a trait for disease resistance, but haven’t even reached the field trial stage yet. Unlike the Ghanaian Bt Cowpea which will almost certainly become commercial next year, it’s unclear what will happen with GM papaya in Malaysia. The country currently imports foods containing GMOs, but they haven’t yet allowed for the cultivation of GM crops. The scientists that I spoke with said for now the country is “comfortable” without the technology, so it isn’t their institute’s main priority. When I met random Malaysians in the hostel or restaurants and said I was researching GMOs, most hadn’t even heard of them.
So while my time in Malaysia didn’t generate as juicy of controversy as my time in Argentina, I think it was still an important research stop because it shows that transgenic crops aren’t essential everywhere. The scientists at MARDI said that they’re already looking beyond current transgenic breeding techniques towards the cutting edge CRISPR-Cas9 system (In case you’re wondering, here’s an article explaining CRISPR-Cas9 pretty well. You should definitely understand this technology because it’s very new, interesting and powerful – they’ve already shown that it would be biologically possible to edit human embryos). The scientists said that with climate change, it may be more important to have these biotech tools in the future, so for now they need to begin ensuring that the public is comfortable with them.
Well, I’m going to leave it at that for now. Sorry if there are sentences in the post that don’t make sense… I’m exhausted from travel and staying up late the night before being worried about travel (have I mentioned I’m afraid of flying?). Tomorrow I’m meeting with scientists in the Philippines who research Golden Rice, which has been fortified with Vitamin A. It’s the classic story of GMO failure or success, depending on how you look at it. This is one of the projects I’ve been most excited to visit, but I’m sad that the trip is coming to a close.