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General Biotechnology
 
BIOTECHNOLOGY: BOONE OR BANE?
by Rudy A. Fernandez, article published as cover story in AgriAsia Magazine, August 2001
 
 

Biotechnology. A scientific term formed when two words are put together: 'bio', which stand(s)* for biology, the science of life; and 'technology', the tools and techniques used to achieve a particular purpose.

The term biotechnology was coined by Karl Erchy, a Hungarian agricultural economist who, in 1917, foresaw the inevitability of a biology-technology merger.

Biotechnology is not new. Over the past 8,000 years, mankind has been using microorganisms to produce food such as bread, wine, cheese, and vinegar. Many traditional processes in making fermented products use simple biotechnology techniques. But man did not call it biotechnology then.

The making of beer, soy sauce, 'nata de coco', and even composting in backyard is also a biotechnological process. Other products of biotechnology are antibiotics (penicillin), insulin for the treatment of diabetes; and vaccines for measles, hepatitis B, and rabies.

In other words, humankind has been using and benefiting from biotechnology for a long time.

In recent years, the scientific process has come to be broadly defined as 'any technique that uses living organisms (or parts of organisms) to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop substances for specific uses.'

“Modern biotechnology narrowly refers to biotechnology (biological)* applications based on the new science of molecular biology,” said Dr. Emil Q. Javier, one time Science Minister of the Philippines. “With the new knowledge in molecular sciences, it is now possible to identify specific genes, understand their function in the whole organisms(organism)*; clone, move and transfer the gene across natural species barriers; and make the genes express their products in specific tissues at specific growth stages in the recipient organisms.”

Dr. Javier, a former president of the University of the Philippines (UP), the country’s premier tertiary institution, further explained: “In classical or conventional plant breeding, gene transfers are limited to between varieties of the same species; occasionally between species within the same genus, and rarely between species belonging to different genera. Transferring novel genes between plant families, much less from bacteria to plants, was impossible. But now with modern biotechnology, very wide genetic introgressions are impossible(possible)*.”

The noted Filipino scientist, who now chairs the technical advisory committee of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), continued: “In one sense, biotechnology is merely a continuation of the old. The essential unity of the genetics of all living organisms had been there all along. We simply discovered the secrets of what the discreet units of inheritance are made of, how they function and how we can manipulate them with more precision compared with the random, statistical methods we have deployed in the past.”

The Lines Are Drawn

To those who see in biotechnology a process that can considerably help feed a hungry, burgeoning world, biotechnology is a “God-given gift.”

But not to those who see otherwise.

Perhaps never in the history of research has a scientific process like biotechnology whipped up a controversy whose echoes reverberate around the world.

The lines are drawn. Contending groups (scientific, political, economic, ideological, religious) have stockpiled ammunitions which they continue to throw at each other. The words uttered are acerbic, their effects are incisive.

The controversy practically zeroes in on a biotechnological product called genetically modified organism (GMO).

GMO Defined

A GMO is an organism, plant, or animal that contains a gene introduced or inserted through genetic engineering techniques instead of the plant receiving it through pollination. The inserted gene (known as the transgene) may come from another unrelated plant or from a completely different species. An example of GMO introduced is a plant that contains a gene from an organism, which gives it new traits such as resistance to disease or insect, or improved nutritional value. The resulting plant is said to be “genetically modified” although in reality all crops have “genetically modified” from their original wild state by domestication, selection, and controlled breeding over long periods of time.

Many scientists do not feel at ease with biotechnology.

Dr. Joseph Cummins, professor emeritus of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario, opined: “Probably the greatest threat from genetically altered crops is the insertion of modified virus and insect virus genes into crops which will create highly virulent new viruses from such constructions . . . Modified viruses could cause famine by destroying crops or cause human and animal diseases of tremendous power.”

Dr. Michael Antoniou, senior lecturer in Molecular Pathology in London teaching school, averred: “(Genetic engineering) results in disruption of the genetic blueprint of the organism with totally unpredictable consequences. The unexpected production of toxic substances has now been observed in genetically-engineered bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals with the problem remaining undetected until a major health hazard happens. Moreover, genetically-engineered foods or enzymatic food processing agents may produce an immediate effect or it could take years for full toxicity to come to light.”

Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe?

The bone of contention is the safeness of GM products.

Typical is the apprehension of a pharmacologist of the University of the Philippines, Dr. Romeo Quijano: "What you eat can kill you, particularly if it is genetically modified food." He conceded, though that, 'there is a correlation though there is no direct evidence. If the allergic reaction is severe enough, a person could die.'

Pro-GMO scientists, however, have refuted this, asserting that, contrary to common perception, it is natural foods that account for the majority of food allergies such as shrimps, crabs, and nuts. In fact, they added, any food that contains proteins has the potential to cause allergic reactions depending on individual susceptibility.

For instance, an experts committee convened by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that the possibility of allergies arising from the consumption of modified foods is no different from that of other conventionally produced or natural foods. Furthermore, extensive food safety evaluations have been implemented to minimize the possibility that allergenic proteins are introduced into commercialized GM crops. There is no single commercialized GM plant that is known to cause any significant risks of allergenicity.

Citing the case of the Philippines, Dr. Javier noted: “We import each year hundred of thousands of metric tons of corn and soybean from the United States. Since easily half of these commodities grown in the US are from GM crops, we can assume that we, as well as the American public and other importers, have been consuming GM-derived corn and soybean products for the past five years. So far there has not been a single report of food allergy and poisoning from GM corn and soybean.”

Further, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has one of the most stringent food evaluation policies, has determined that plant foods produced through biotechnology present no inherent risk different from conventionally bred plants and, therefore, should be regulated as any other food entering the marketplace.

Worldwide, other agencies have evaluated the safety of goods developed through biotechnology, including the results of the joint expert consultation conducted by WHO and FAO. Furthermore, scientific and medical institution such as the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) stand by the US FDA's position on GM foods.

The Philippines perhaps stands out as one of the most critical 'biotech battlegrounds.'

The adjectives are vitriolic, as when Rosa Meneses, founding president of the Philippines Breast Cancer Network, wrote in the Letter to the Editor section of one Manila daily newspaper: “Our pathetically misinformed government officials and scientists are shamelessly proclaiming corporate junk science as ‘sound science.’

Golden Rice Controversy

Greenpeace’s Southeast Asia campaign director Von Hernandez, even before full research on the genetically-engineered “Golden Rice” has been completed, has already disparagingly branded it as 'fool’s gold,' 'an empty promise,' and 'a quick fix.'

'Golden Rice' was developed by two European scientists, Prof. Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Dr. Peter Beyer of the University Freinsburg(of Freisurg)*, Germany, in a public and charity-funded research program on addressing malnutrition in developing nations. Potrykus and Beyer introduced three foreign genes in the Golden Rice: one coming from the bacterium Erwinia uredovora(Erwinia uredovora)* and two coming from daffodil plant, Naroissus pseudonarcissus(Narcissus pseudonarcissus)*. These genes complete the biochemical pathway that produces beta-carotene.

Research samples of the Golden Rice, which contains beta-carotene and other carotenoids, have been provided to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna, 65 kilometers southeast of Manila.

The delivery of Golden Rice from the investors’(inventors')* laboratory to IRRI last Jan. 19 was made possible by a donation of intellectual property licenses from Syngenta AG, Syngenta Ltd., Bayer AG, Monsanto Company, Inc. Orynova BV, and Zeneca Mogen BV. Each company has licensed free-of-charge technology used in the research that led to the Golden Rice inventions(invention)*. Subject to further research, initially in the developing countries of Asia, as well as local regulatory clearances, Golden Rice can then be made available free-of charge for humanitarian uses in any developing nation.

IRRI scientists will investigate the safety and utility of Golden Rice in combating vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is responsible for 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and one to two million deaths worldwide each year.

On Greenpeace’s outright prejudgment, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, professor and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama, USA, said: “These activists are afraid that Golden Rice is a part of biotechnology that will be successful.”

Moore Defends Golden Rice

Dr. Patrick Moore, Greenpeace co-founder who recently broke away with the organization, has also come to the defense of the Golden Rice, stating: “Let someone come forward and state that the possibility of saving 500,000 children from blindness is a zero benefit.”

He averred that “the campaign of fear now being waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic. In the balance it is clear that the real benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the hypothetical and sometimes contrived risks claimed by its detractors.”

Dr. Moore, who served as president of Greenpeace Canada for nine years and director of Greenpeace International for seven years, accused the organization of abandoning science and following agenda that have little to do with saving the earth. “Genetic modification,” he asserted, “can reduce the impact on non-target species, and reduce the amount of land required for food crops. There are so many real benefits from genetic modification compared to the largely hypothetical and contrived risks that it would be foolish to ban genetic modification.”

Somehow, independent observers of the ongoing biotechnology issue cannot help but ask if Greenpeace is in for a disinformation/misinformation campaign against GMO instead of staying on the level.

Last March 19, for instance, Greenpeace members visited IRRI after which they issued a press statement claiming that they have 'prevented' the release of the nutritionally enhanced Golden Rice for the next five years.

IRRI Remains Committed

Not so, IRRI clarified. Actually, the institute stated, it would take that long (five years) to complete its research in the first place. Thus, Greenpeace’s self-proclaimed “victory” is no more than IRRI’s research forecast.

“We remain committed to the continued safe and sustainable development of Golden Rice, and there will be no change to our plans as a result of the Greenpeace visit,” confirmed IRRI's Ronald Cantrell.

Also last June, Greenpeace and four other organizations (Southeast Asian Regional Institute for Community Education or SEARICE, Mother Earth, Magsasaka at Siyentipiko Para sa Ikauunlad ng Agham Pang-Agrikultura or MASIPAG, and the Philippine Peasant Institute) practically distorted a homily of Pope John Paul II to suit their interest.

In a press statement published in a leading Manila newspaper on June 4, Greenpeace and the anti-GMO groups stated that Holy Father had told thousands of farmers from around the world who visited Rome in observance of their Jubilee that “using genetically modified organisms to increase production was contrary to God’s will.” Nowhere in the Pope’s sermon was 'genetically modified organisms' mentioned. Neitherthat the Pope say that GMO is “contrary to God’s will.”

What the Church leader said, in part, was: “Agricultural activity in our era has had to reckon with the consequences of industrialization and the sometimes disorderly development of urban areas, with the phenomenon of air pollution and ecological disruption, with the dumping of toxic waste and deforestation.”

Papal Statement

Pope John Paul II also advised the farmers thus: “Work in such a way that you resists the temptations of productivity and profit that are not detrimental to the respect for nature. God entrusted the earth to human beings to till it and keep it.”

The Vatican Pontifical Academy, through Vice President Bishop Elio Sgreccia, had earlier issued the following statement, “We are increasingly encouraged that the advantages of genetic engineering of plants and animals are greater that(than)* the risks. The risks should be carefully followed through openness, analysis and controls, but without a sense of alarm.”

Sin Cites GE Benefits

In the Philippines, the Catholic Church's appears divided on the issue.

Lately, the Church’s highest official, the powerful and highly popular Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, cited the benefits of the application of genetic engineering on agricultural products 'provided this is done under the principles of morality.' In a pastoral letter, the Cardinal stated that 'genetic engineering is acceptable only if all risks are minimized. If foreseeable dangers are not fully identified, studied, and avoided, safe alternative procedures should be used, or if none, testing and development of the technology should be delayed altogether.'

Cardinal Sin concluded: “Along with the noble desire to combat hunger, poverty and diseases in developing and applying such technology, scientists have the task of protecting the rest of creation from all possible harms that ensue.”

Earlier, Bishop Jesus Varela, former chairman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Committee on Family Life, told a gathering of agricultural experts in Manila that there was no incongruence in the use of biotechnology with the Church’s beliefs. He, however, added that “activities regarding biotechnology should consider risks associated with it and if there are uncontrollable risks, we should forgo this technology and rely on current technologies.”

In southern Philippines, however, some church leaders believe otherwise.

Just before the May 14 senatorial and local elections, the parish in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, strung across the façade of the church edifice a streamer with the following message: “Oppose Bt corn. No vote to candidates who promote GMO. Boycott all Monsanto products. They are the propagators of Bt corn.”

It was in a nearby town, Polomolok, that a trial on Bt corn was conducted by the U.P. Los Baños Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) and the Pioneer Hi-Bred Philippines. The experimental corn were planted last Jan. 8 and harvested three months later (April 2).

Corn Trial Results

Dr. Samuel Dalmacio, Pioneer plant pathologist for Asia-Pacific, reported that the results “clearly showed the potential benefits of Bt technology in the Philippines through reduced damage due to Asia(n)* corn borer and significant reduction or elimination of chemical pesticides.”

Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that naturally occurs in soil. Through genetic engineering technique, a specific gene of Bt has been introduced into a corn variety. The Bt (corn)* produces its natural pesticide against the Asian corn borer, which is responsible for heavy losses incurred by Filipino corn farmers every year. Bt corn is a product of biotechnology.

Only two trials on Bt corn have so far been conducted in the Philippines because of the strong opposition posed by some anti-GMO organizations, scientists, some members of the Catholic Church, and others.

Both trials were approved by the National Biosafety Committee of the Philippines (NCBP). Attached to the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), the NCBP is the body that regulates biotechnology activities in the country.

The first trial was conducted by UPLB-IPB and Agroseed Corporation at Barangay Lagao, General Santos City, South Cotabato, from Dec. 15, 1999 to March 19, 2000. Results showed that Bt corn was highly resistant to the Asian corn borer compared to the traditional corn variety used, which was devastated by the pest. (During the trial, a Church leader reportedly said that consuming GMO products could turn one gay.)

Aware of the two Bt corn trials’ significant results, many farmers have expressed disgust that many people opposing GMO are not even land tillers.

In previous confrontations between anti- and pro-GMO groups, some farmer-leaders have posed the questions: “Why deny us this technology?”

One farmer-leader from General Santos City, during a Senate hearing in Manila last year, assailed anti-GMO non-government organizations (NGOs) for blocking the field trials of Bt corn, whose main purpose is to find out is the technology is beneficial to farmers.

He pointed out that farmers usually resort to spraying toxic pesticides to control pests. In the process, they are exposing themselves to poisonous chemicals and some get sick. They stressed that it is they, not the NGOs, who are farming and it is they who will benefit from the technology if it proves effective.

Another farmers group stressed: “We are not sure of the benefits derived from the technology. However, how would we know if the technology is really beneficial if we are not going to allow the field testing of Bt corn? To people like us farmers, it is important that we see research results.”

Both trials had spawned legal battles.

In the first Bt corn trial, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed against the Agroseed Corporation for failure of the complainants to comply with basic procedural requirements.

In the second case, Judge Rojas of the Regional Trials Court in Polomolok ruled that the petitioners “have not shown, at least tentatively, that they have been irreparably injured by the planting of the genetically modified Bt corn inside Hybrid Seed Production Center South Pioneer Hi-Breed Philippines, Inc. in Barangay Glamang, Polomolok, South Cotabato."

Indeed, as former Philippine science secretary and now IRRI deputy director General William Padolina stressed: “It is ironical that many groups have raised issues on hypothetical risks. Ongoing debates have led to political indecision.”

Be that as it may, more 'barangay' (village), municipal, and provincial councils have been showing interest in Bt corn and are clamoring for field testing in their places.

Summing up, as Dr. Prakash, who has been a regular visitor of the Philippines over the past few years, stated: “The Philippines cannot afford to lag behind in critically examining these new technologies and making them available to its farmers under suitable safeguards. Biotechnology is not a panacea for all food production problems in the Philippines, but it is still the single most powerful tool now.”

Developing countries, including the Philippines, have been left behind in the biotechnology race. As of last year 44.2 million hectares in only 13 countries had been planted to GM crops such as soybean, cotton, (canola,)* corn, potato, squash, and papaya. Leading the countries now feverishly growing GM crops are the United States (30.3 million hectares), Argentina (10 million), Canada (three million), and China (500,000). The others are South Africa, Australia, France, Mexico, Bulgaria, Spain, Germany, Rumania, and Uruguay.

World GM Trade Hits $3.2B

Global trade in genetically modified crops reached $3.2 billion in 2000, a meteoric increase from $75 million when GM crops first hit the international market in 1995. The world market for transgenic crops is projected to reach $8 billion in 2005 and $25 billion in 2010, according to a report prepared by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

World population (six billion) increasing by about 73 million (some computations are higher) a year. Between 2000 and 2025, the world population will increase by almost two billion. To feed this additional population, it has been calculated that the average yields of cereals must be (80 percent higher than the average yields in 1990.)*

(The global population increase is almost the same as the present poulation of the Philippines [77 million], which has been projected to reach)* 108 million by 2020. Given a 2.36 percent population increase every year, three Filipinos are born every minute, 193 in an hour, 4,624 in a day, and 1.7 million in a year.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner who has also been a regular Philippine visitor in recent years, has pointed out that if the 1961 average cereal yields of Asia were to prevail today, 600 million hectares of additional land of the same quality would be needed to equal the 1997 cereal harvest. This is no longer possible today and if additional lands were to be used to plant food crops, one would have to move into the forest areas and other marginal environments, risking the extinction of other plant and animal species owing to the destruction of their habitat.

Borlaug Speaks Out

Biotechnology offers a solution to this problem by providing better tools to improve productivity in order to produce more food for a growing population, asserted Dr. Borlaug, who is considered the “Father of the Green Revolution.”

He scored resistance to biotechnology in Europe, saying that : “While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt elitist positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘natural method,’ the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.”

On the whole, biotechnology’s critical role in the immediate future vis-à-vis humankind’s twin problems of poverty and hunger is best summed up by Dr. Clive James, chairman of the ISAAA board of directors: “Denial of the new technologies to the poor is synonymous to condemning them to continued suffering from malnutrition which eventually many deny the poorest of the poor their right to survival.”

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(*) Letter or words omitted/added/typed inadvertently.

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