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Philippines
AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT GLORIA MACAPAGAL ARROYO & HER CABINET
27-Apr-2001 Philippine Daily Inquirer
 
Why We Should Not Be Afraid of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)

Your Excellency,

We, the official representative and members of various professional groupings of the Philippine scientific community, have noted with dismay the increasing stridency of the issues being raised against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), their introduction and commercial availability in Philippines crops or in local or imported products for human food and livestock feed.

Very Briefly, these issues concern the following:

Safety of GMOs for human intake and for the environment and safety in the consumption of livestock that have been fed GMO-derived feeds; The role (or non-role) of GMOs in increasing productivity, and consequently, in reduction and relief of human hunger and poverty. An apparent well-funded campaign to muddle public perception on GMOs; and Linking of other issues totally unrelated to GMOs, to add to the scare and confusion.

GMOs (transgenic, genetically modified or engineered organisms) are new varieties of plants or strains of animals or microbes develop by transferring through laboratory means (procedures collectively called genetic engineering) a useful quality to an existing popular variety of plant or strain of animal/microbe.

As with any new idea, discovery technology or newfangled item of human knowledge, the advent of GMOs has been met with public trepidation and a general fear of the unknown.

While we understand this tendency, we note with concern that it can only cause confusion and needless delay in the advancement of efforts to resolve not a few problems that have to do with human life itself.

Especially in our country, not least of such problems is how to feed our increasing population and how to marshal and sustain the resources necessary to combat the hunger and poverty that come with populations pressure.

With all humility, but with the authority and currency of knowledge that our training and practice as members of the practice as members of the scientific community afford us, allow us there for to help shed light on these issues.

I. ARE GMOs SAFE FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION AND THE ENVIRONMENT?

  • All commercially released GMOs like Bt corn and Herbcide resistant soybean have undergone thorough testing for toxicity, allergenicity and nutritional food and feed values.
  • Several international agencies such as the FAO, the European Commision, the Third World Academy of Sciences and the national academies of science and technology of several countries have declared that the abovementioned genetically modified (GM) foodcrops are as safe as any conventionally bred crop and pose no additional threat to humans and the environment. Hence, the Philippine Department of Health treats GMO-derived food like any other food and has no need to test for or detect its presence.
  • The property of a GMO depends upon the new gene it has received. Different GMOs must be treated depending upon this new property.
  • The Philippine Department of Agriculture has always been vigilant in protecting the Filipino consumer from the entry of dioxin-laced meat from Belgium and the entry of European meat imports that could carry the Mad Cow infectious agent. On the other hand, the Department has no basis to declare GMOs unsafe and has no need to test for its presence.
  • The Department of Agriculture, in line with the biotechnology provision of the Agriculture and fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA), is well-informed about the issues on GMOs. It supports risk, assessment and other research projects and is drafting guidelines on the commercialisation of the GMOs.
  • Bt crops such as Bt corn reduce the exposure of farmers and the environment to pesticides as well as the contamination of the corn grain with aflatoxin.
  • Results of a 10-year study show that cultivated crops, whether Gm or conventionally-bred do not survive in the wild and do not become weedy.
  • Like any other new technology, the possible effect of GM crops on other organisms in the environment need to be systematically evaluated to develop mitigating measure to reduce any risk.

II. IS THERE ANY ROLE FOR GMOs IN INCREASING PRODUCTIVITY AND FIGHTING HUNGER?

  • Philippine agriculture is beset with numerous problems, some requiring the use of new technologies to attain an increased and sustainable productivity that maintains environmental integrity. Experience in other countries clearly show that these objectives are attainable with GMOs.
  • There are planted to GMOs in many parts of the world is increasing. In year 2000, the total world area is 44.2 million hectares, representing an increase of 11% from 1999. China planted more than 5000,000 has, this year. In world market, the available soybean contains more than 50% GMO whereas available corn contains more than 16% GMO. Europe, Japan and the ASEAN countries like the Philippines annually import this commodities. There is no telling how the availability of this new technology has helped increase production in this countries or how much it has helped feed countless hungry mouths in both the producing and the importing countries.
  • No less than the Pontificial Academy of the Vatican has given its nod, though qualified, to GMO technology. While giving a resounding no to human cloning, it has given a prudent yes to GMO technology provided that it should help prevent human hunger.
  • Economic studies show that farmers, consumers, patent holders and seed producers are benefiting form GMO technology and that small farmers gain more than big commercial farmers.
  • Alternative to GM. It is, however, a labor-intensive farming system suited to supplying food to the affluent.

III. THE SCARE CAMPAIGN AGAINST GMOs

An apparent well-funded campaign launched by foreign interest groups has raised and muddled several issues and has only served to sow fear in the public mind. Again, allow us to clarify them, as follows:

GMO“contamination” in food.
The presence of ingredients derived from GMOs in food and in bulk commodities is referred to as “contamination” to imply adverse effect on health. There is no basis for this implication. The deliberate use of the term is a scare tactic. In the USA, up to 60% of processed food contain GMO in the US, is due to non-compliance with a regulation. No adverse effect on human health has been observed with Starlink corn.

GMO “contamination/pollution” in food production.
Again, mere presence of an element or substance, and one that has been observe to have no adverse effect on humans, is not “contamination “ or “pollution.” This is mere natural transfer of genes among varieties of corn planted close to each other, a normal occurrence among plants. Gene flow is easily prevented by planting different varieties at different times or isolating the variety.

“Accumulation of the GM product in the body or in the environment may have adverse effects in the long term.”
The new products in a GM crop is a small piece of DNA, and two to three new proteins, common substances found in all foods that are usually digested or ejected from the body. These substances are easily degraded or broken down by soil microbes.There is no danger of accumulating GM products in the body or in the soil.

“Too little Vitamin A in ‘Golden Rice’ to matter; Vit A can be derived from other food sources.”
The Vit A in golden rice has been increased so that a normal daily intake can supply about 40% of the daily requirement. In many poor households, rice with salt or sugar is all the food the family can afford in most days. Thus, the Vit A in golden rice can help reduce Vit A deficiency which is the prevalent cause of night blindness or even death. More than 30% of young Filipinos are afflicted with Vit A deficiency.

“Antibiotic resistance in GM crops may lead to antibiotic-resistant disease microbes."
The antibiotic resistance genes in GM crops may transfer to disease-causing microbes and make this microbes difficult to manage, Although no experiment in more than  years of study shows that this can happen, new GM crops no longer contain any antibiotic resistance gene.

“The Puzstai rat experiments prove that GM foods are unsafe.”
Puzstai fed his rats with raw potatoes engineered to have high amounts of a substance toxic to mammals like rats and men. Fortunately, this GM potato and any similar GM plant will never be available commercially.

“GMOs like the soybean with Brazil nut protein cause allergies.”
This particular GM soybean with Brazil nut protein has not been commercially produced precisely because of this property. However, a person normally allergic to soybean has been engineered not to cause allergenicity. Removal of allergenicity in rice is an on-going research.

“A GMO released in the environment cannot be recalled.”
All one has to do is not plant the variety again, which is what happened IR*, the first HYV (High yielding variety) rice.

IV. TOTALLY UNRELATED ISSUES LINKED TO GMOs

The anti-GMO campaign often includes non-GMO issues which further confuse and scare the public, as follows:

Mad cow Disease. There is no link between mad cow disease and GMOs. On the other hand, importation of GMOs by the EU is expected to substitute for cow-derived feed/food ingredient which are the main source contamination with mad cow disease.

Toxin-laced Tryptophan. The toxin associated with this from the process of production and not from the GMO.

Nuclear power. This has absolutely nothing to do with nuclear radiation has been used to improved more than 15 done some 20 years ago. Before the advent of GM.

Bgh. This is a hormone that increase milk the same effect whether it is GMO-derived or not. Its cows similar to the misuse of the flowering-induces cow injected with recombinant Bgh has developed.

Golden Kuhol. This is not a GMO.

In conclusion…our Excellency, the foregoing are, to the best of our knowledge, our contribution to clarifying the issues raised against GMOs.

We submit that instead of surrendering to our fear of the unknown, we must welcome with enlightened courage the opportunities we find at every new frontier of knowledge. This is the only way we can benefit from science.

Filipino farmers are faced with different challenges as they fill the soil to produce food for our rapidly growing population.

We submit that they should be allowed the freedom to choose the technologies suited to their situation. So must they be educated , trained and enlightened as to these choices- to improve their own lot as much as to feed our people safe food in a safe and sustainable environment.

We submit that consumers be allowed the same choice. However, labeling should not place an additional burden to the poor whose only choice is what they can afford.

We submit that GM crops resistant to disease, pests and drought are needed by Filipino farmers.

We submit that GM crops that improve consumer health such as Vit A rice, protein-rich staples, cholesterol-lowering food are needed by our rapidly growing population.

It is therefore imperative that Government strengthen the capacity of the scientific community in genetic engineering technology and support the speedy transfer of appropriate GMOs to farmers.

Further, the government must strengthen our regulatory agencies and equip them to evaluate new product and technologies using sound scientific methods to ensure affordable and safe foods.

The National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCPB) must continue to safeguard the public and the environment from harmful genetic engineering experiment but must relax its too stringent rules to enable the appropriate experiment to flourish.

Finally, we the scientific community, mindful of our obligation to share the fruits of the practice of our profession towards the improvement of our national life, welcome the pronouncement of the Secretary of Agriculture enjoining us to develop and strengthen our local capability on Biotechnology.

SIGNATORIES

Association of Scientist in the Philippines: Saturnina C.Halos, President

Biotech Program, Institute of Plant Breeding, UPLB: Evelyn Mae T. Mendoza, Coordinator

Women Inventors Association of the Philippines, Inc: Dina B. Masa, President

Women in Science and Technology Development Foundation, Inc: Lydia M. Joson, President

Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology, Lydia G. Tansinsin, President

Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Technology: Sonia Y. de Leon, President

Institute of Biology, College of Science, UP Diliman: Nellie C. Lopez, Director

Natural Science Research Institute, UP Diliman: Emeica P. Cao, Director

Crop Science Society of the Philippines: Leocadio Sebastian, President

National Institute of Molecular Biology & Biotechnology, UP Manila: Nina G. Barzaga, Director

National Institute of Health, UP Manila: Mario Festin, Executive Director & Vice Chancellor for Research

Biochemical Society of the Philippines: Dr. Rhodora R. Aldemita, President

Institute of Plant Breeding, UPLB: Dr. Violeta N. Villegas, Director

National Institute of Molecular Biology & Biotechnology, UP Diliman: Dr. Virginia Monje, Director

Pest Management Council of the Philippines: Erdie Malveda, President

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