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Philippines Food-price hike may heighter
biotech debate by Jonathan L. Mayuga Correspondent
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center UPLB Campus 4031, Los Baños, Laguna, PHILIPPINES
Telephone +6349 536 2290 ext. 406 / 169 / 135
Fax +6349 536 4105
SEARCA BIC is one of the biotechnology information nodes of the International
Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications Global Knowledge
Center (ISAAA KC) and hosted by the Southeast Asian Regional Center
for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA). It was officially
established in 2000 to address the needs of the region for a highly
credible, sound and factual biotechnology information center in the
Southeast Asian region accessible to various stakeholders.