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Philippines
Food-price hike may heighter biotech debate
by Jonathan L. Mayuga Correspondent
21-April-2008 BusinessMirror

THE current skyrocketing cost of rice, agricultural crops and other basic commodities are expected to spark spirited debate on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), touted as a means to help in the worsening problem of hunger, poverty and malnutrition being experienced worldwide.

In the Philippines, anti-GMO advocate Greenpeace warned the government from using the ongoing rice crisis as an excuse to set aside existing regulations of the government regarding GMOs, saying there are other sources of GMO-free rice.

Biotechnology advocates, led by the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), a broad alliance of scientists, academicians and NGO workers, support the use of biotechnology in agriculture to ensure food security.

The BCP believes the government has the most stringent regulation to ensure that the GMOs being allowed entry in the Philippines, whether for food, feed or processing, are safe for human consumption, as well as the environment.

Agriculture officials believe that biotechnology is the key for the country’s survival during these trying times when the country is faced with problems, such as poor food production owing to unfavorable and extreme weather conditions—such as drought and super typhoons because of climate change, which is severely affecting the Philippine agriculture.

Director Alice Ilaga of the Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Program Office (DA-BPO) said there’s economic opportunity in biotechnology.

Ilaga has been going around remote areas in the country to promote farming for natural ingredients, such as the lowly malunggay, touted as the miracle tree.

Farming for natural ingredients is one of two directions identified in the DA’s Biotechnology Road map which was developed by biotechnology experts the DA commissioned for the purpose. The other
being strengthening the country’s traditional agri-fishery products through modern biotechnology.

Government scientists are developing superior crops using biotechnology, including recombinant DNA technology or genetic engineering.

Currently in the pipeline are pest-resistant eggplants, a variety induced with the soil bacterium Bacillus thriengensis, which is now in the controlled field trial stage in Bay, Laguna.

There is also the virus-resistant papaya and papaya with delayed ripening trait. Scientists are also working on the multivirus-resistant tomato. All of these aim to increase food production.

In December 2002, the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) approved for commercialization the first genetically engineered crop in the country—the Bt corn.

This was followed by another corn seed technology, the Roundup Ready (RR) corn, a corn variety that was genetically engineered to survive herbicide. It is now being used by farmers in the upland areas, particularly in Iloilo, and has been credited for the growth of the corn sector in the province.

Dr. Saturnina Halos, the top biotechnology expert of the DA, insists that agricultural biotechnology is the key to modernizing agriculture, saying it is only
through gene-splicing technique that scientists can come up with superior crops to ensure food security.

Halos, who calls herself a “biotech entrepreneur” having developed and commercialized Vital-N, a biofertilizer which improves the growth and resistance of rice and corn, and ensuring increased yield, said since the Bt corn and RR corn were released commercially, there has been no report of its adverse effect both to animals and the environment. Bt corn and RR corn are currently being used for animal feedstock.

A group of corn farmers, the Philippine Maize Federation, attested to the significant change in their lives after using genetically engineered corn, noting that besides the increase in yield from 3.5 tons to as high as 8 tons to 10 tons per hectare, they no longer spend for the expensive pesticide to get rid of the dreaded Asian corn borer, which used to cut their production to half when using regular or even hybrid corn.

Among the current highlights of the GMO research in the country are the Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute project on the “Golden Rice.”

Through genetically engineered rice, they intend to increase the beta-carotene content of the staple for increased vitamin A. This, in particular, aims to solve the growing problem of malnutrition suffered by millions of women and children in the Philippines.

Besides fortifying the staple with vitamins and micronutrients, scientists are developing genetically improved rice varieties to increase yield and resist drought or flood, thus ensuring bountiful harvest all year round.

Greenpeace, however, insists that GMOs are not the solution to the current rice crisis.

Its call came at the launch of a landmark United Nations (UN) and World Bank-funded report, the very first assessment of global agriculture that recommends the replacement of destructive chemical-intensive agriculture with methods that work with nature not against it.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) said, “Continuing with current trends in production and distribution would exhaust our resources and put our children’s future in jeopardy.”

The report, drawn up by about 400 international experts at the behest of the World Bank and the UN food agency, called for a “more holistic view of agriculture.”

“And the increasingly globalized food market and ever-increasing food imports mean that no country can assume itself to be immune to the implications,” it added.

“Although considered by many to be a success story, the benefits of productivity increases in world agriculture are unevenly spread,” it further said.

Although the report made no mention of modern biotechnology or GMOs, Greenpeace said in a statement: “Some 60 governments, meeting in Johannesburg since last week, have signed the IAASTD’s final report expected to guide agricultural and food production in the coming decades. The report says industrial agriculture has failed and that GMOs are not the solution to poverty, hunger or climate change.”

Greenpeace said the recommendations of the UN report are especially significant as it clearly shows the failure of past and present government-initiated programs to boost rice production through agriculture highly dependent on costly toxic chemical inputs as well as corporate-owned seeds, such as GMOs and hybrid seeds.

It said the UN IAASTD report is highly critical of GMOs, calling instead for a fundamental change in farming practices, in order to address soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities and environmental disasters.

Greenpeace maintains that the Philippine government’s plans to increase fertilizer subsidies and its support of GMO crops are unsound farming practices that would endanger, rather than improve, the country’s agricultural sector.

“By using these methods, the government is actually compounding the food problem, not solving it,” said Daniel Ocampo, Greenpeace’s campaigner.

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