Southeast Asia positive toward biotech crops

Southeast Asia positive toward biotech crops

By Debra Levey Larson, U of I College of ACES

Media/Communications Specialist

URBANA—While well-fed countries engage in conversations about whether biotechnology should be used to prevent pests and boost the world’s food production, developing countries in Southeast Asia express optimism toward the technology in hopes of saving their starving populations, according to a University of Illinois social scientist. “In Southeast Asia, key stakeholders believe that the benefits of biotechnology outweigh the risks,” said Napoleon Juanillo, social scientist in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They have many more mouths to feed than we do in the United States, so they are focused more on feeding the hungry than engaging in discourse about the moral and ethical dimensions. Although moral and ethical concerns are expressed, for the most part, that is an elite discourse and one they do not have time to engage in.”

Juanillo recently completed a collaborative survey in five Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. With help from approximately 250 university scientists in those countries, he surveyed urban consumers, businessmen, Extension workers, farmer leaders, religious leaders, journalists, policy makers and scientists about their opinions and perceptions on biotechnology.

“Those who participated in the survey are the key stakeholders of these countries,” said Juanillo. “But they are also rational people who are looking realistically at their starving population and seeing the benefits of biotechnology as a way to feed the masses. Anything new and promising is welcome news to them. They seem to be saying, ‘Our people are starving and you’re telling me to consider the risks?’ It’s an elite discourse.”

By way of comparison, as of July 2002, the United States had a population of a little more than 280 million. Indonesia is about three times the size of Texas and has a population of more than 231 million. The total population of the five Southeast Asian countries Juanillo surveyed is estimated at 481 million people.

“The message to Illinois farmers is that Southeast Asia is a big market for corn and soybean, and there is not much opposition to biotech products in those countries,” said Juanillo.

Currently, Vietnam experiments heavily with biotech products. Indonesia grows biotech cotton. The Philippines recently approved field testing of biotech corn, while the Malaysian government is pushing for more experimentation, and Thailand is just beginning experimentation.

“Although fear of the unknown typically drives up concern, the people of Southeast Asia are hopeful of anything new that will help their country,” said Juanillo. “They welcome any technology that will bring more prosperity to their country. Developing countries are always behind, and they look at biotechnology as a potential tool to help them catch up.

Juanillo said that there is a misconception that these Southeast Asian countries are just growing rice. “They’re a tropical explosion. And if biotechnology can help them to develop more varieties of mangoes or papayas, that’s a good thing to them. Anything that can help them produce better crops, they’re in favor of.”

It all began with a talk at a conference in Thailand in 1999 about the role that culture and other social variables play in the public’s perception of the risks of biotechnology. Napoleon Juanillo was asked by the Department of Agriculture in the Philippines to give a similar talk in the Philippines. This snowballed into more speaking engagements.

With assistance from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Juanillo was able to coordinate studies in the five Southeast Asian countries. The logistics alone involved monumental orchestration. The survey first had to be translated into three other languages besides English—Thai, Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese.

“I made one trip to Bangkok, where the entire team gathered in order to describe the protocol for administering the surveys so that all of the data would be compatible. Later we met in Malaysia to look at the progress. The ISAAA served as coordinator of the project, and it was my job to analyze the data collected,” said Juanillo.

Juanillo said the project was partially funded by Hewlett Foundation, the University of Illinois, the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research (C-FAR) and the agricultural universities in the five Southeast Asian countries in which the studies took place.

“These universities provided manpower consisting of geneticists, plant pathologists and molecular biologists who are interested in what people think and whether the work they are doing with biotechnology is relevant,” said Juanillo. The survey was patterned after the Eurobarometer public perception surveys on biotechnology.

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