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Biotechnology pushed to ease food shortage
by Marianne Go
10-June-2008 The Philippine STAR

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap told delegates at an international agriculture conference in Italy that biotechnology is key to the world's quest for food security amid the current shortage in the global food supply and escalating food prices.

An agriculture official clarified that it was not a blanket endorsement of the use of genetically modified organisms.

The Philippines also appealed to international donors to increase fund support for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna, to improve agricultural productivity research.

In his statement at the recent Special Meeting on the Food Crisis convened by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, Ambassador to the UN Hilario Davide Jr. urged donor institutions to increase funding for the IRRI as part of the measures to curb the global food crisis.

Yap cited the program of the Department of Agriculture (DA) in the Philippines that applied biotechnology to raise the quality and quantity of food crops through the development of varieties and seeds that are virus and pest-resistant which could survive dry spells and flash floods induced by climate change.

"Ultimately, biotechnology has evolved to be the hope in securing food for the world's growing population," Yap said last week during an international agricultural biotechnology meeting hosted by the United States and Egypt at the sidelines of a three-day global food summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

US Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, Professor Magdy Madkour of the Ains Shams University of Egypt, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Henrietta Fore, C.S. Karim of the Ministry of Agriculture of Bangladesh, Dr. Shivaji Pandey, director of the FAO Plant Protection Division, Minister Laurent Sedogo of the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Fisheries of Burkina Faso and Minister Hilary Onek of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries of Uganda were among the panelists in the biotechnology forum.

The meeting was held in between sessions of the FAO-hosted High Level Conference on World Food Security in Rome which was attended by heads of states and other top government officials from over 40 countries plus representatives from multilateral financial institutions.

The conference was held to discuss strategies and initiatives that would squarely address the new challenges to global food security.

Yap pointed out that the biotechnology revolution has benefited Philippine agriculture in terms of increasing "overall productivity through increased farm yields and competitive agricultural products that would translate into higher farmers' income."

He said "biotechnology is not the panacea to all our food security needs and economic development crusades."

"We consider it (biotechnology) as one of the means to pursue agricultural modernization and achieve our national economic goals," Yap said. Yap explained that the country's policy includes measures to comply with international standards on the safe use of genetically modified organism (GMO).

"We have enough protocol that comply with the United Nations policy on the safe use of GMO products. Be that as it may, we have enough non-GMO products right now that deliver bigger yields for our farmers so we want to focus on the propagation of these products first," Yap said.

Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) Director Joel Rudinas, however, clarified that biotechnology involves a wide range of operations ranging from tissue culture to genetic manipulation and the government's policy is not a blanket endorsement of GMO.

Rudinas admitted that the government allows certain GMOs but subject to strict rules.

Any application for the use of GMO seeds has to undergo a long process by the BPI before commercial distribution.

Yap said the DA has applied biotechnology to produce high-value products from traditional crops such as rice, papaya, and coconut, improving carabao reproduction and upgrading the country's livestock industry, boost fish production.

Davide. the Philippines Permanent representative to the UN, urged the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Internal Fund for Agricultural Development and development partners to donate more research funds for IRRI.

"The research of IRRI, the world's main repository of rice seeds as well as genetic and other information about rice—the crop that feeds nearly half of the peoples of the world—has been, unfortunately, tremendously slowed down because of cuts in funding for agricultural research," he said.

The envoy cited the case of the brown plant hopper, a tiny fly that has caused havoc across East Asia.

"Damage to rice crops which has caused reduced production output would have been prevented if only IRRI's budget for research had not been cut or reduced," he said.

He cited IRRI reports that the brown plant hopper is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies in East Asia, threatening the diets of many poor people.

Davide said China, the world's biggest rice producer, has announced that it was struggling to control the rapid spread of these insects which could destroy as much as 20 percent of a harvest.

Although no fewer than 14 new types of genetic resistance varieties of rice have been discovered, Davide said the budget cuts prevented IRRI from moving further to develop more hybrid rice varieties.

"If money is available for research, IRRI can accomplish the task in four to seven years and save millions of people from hunger, from death," he said. — With Pia Lee-Brago

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