The end of agri research?

- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - December 29, 2015 - 9:00am

ANAHEIM, California – UP president Fred Pascual had an unusual Christmas card he posted on Facebook during the holidays. He announced the gift of health that comes from a rice-corn blend.

The Institute of Plant Breeding at UP Los Baños has come up with a 70:30 blend of rice and QPM (quality protein maize). By combining the superb taste of rice and the low glycemic index property of corn, the product can serve as a health-promoting staple in the Filipino diet.

As Fred explained it, “It is slow-digesting: no sudden rise in blood sugar, best for building stamina, and great for the figure-conscious (no craving for snacks in between meals). More importantly, the blend is cheaper than pure rice.” Fred then proudly proclaimed that “through R&D programs, UP helps address the challenges confronting our country and people – among them, food security and health concerns.”

UP Los Baños scientists can always be depended upon to do good innovative work. But a recent Supreme Court decision has caused serious concern in the UP Los Baños community. It may be illegal for them to be as innovative as they want to be.

The Supreme Court recently decided to stop further tests on a creative UP Los Baños endeavor. The decision involves what is known as Bt talong. The rice/corn blend in Fred’s Christmas card involves traditional plant breeding to produce the kind of corn needed and then the rice and corn are physically blended, But the rice/corn blend also involves altering natural products (the corn in the physical blend) in one way or another.

The Court of Appeals, which issued the restraining order against Bt eggplant research, justified its ruling by saying the Bt eggplant deprives Filipinos of their right to a balanced ecology. This is on the theory that introducing a genetically modified plant into our ecosystem is an “ecologically imbalancing act.”

The exact wordings as reproduced in the SC decision is as follows: “…there is a perfect and sound balance of our biodiversity as created or brought about by God out of His infinite and absolute wisdom. In other words, every living creature has been in existence or has come into being for a purpose. So we humans are not supposed to tamper with any one element in this swirl of interrelationships among living things in our ecosystems.

“Bt talong is a technology involving the deliberate alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs… It is a deliberate genetic construction of the eggplant to alter its natural order which is meant to eliminate one feeder (the borer) in order to give undue advantage to another feeder (the humans).

“Consequently, the testing or introduction of Bt talong into the Philippines, by its nature and intent, is a grave and present danger to (and an assault on) the Filipinos’ constitutional right to a balanced ecology, because in any book and by any yardstick, it is an ecologically unbalancing event or phenomenon.”

Dr. Emil Javier, who was once DOST Secretary and UP president and a foremost agricultural scientist who worked in international agricultural organizations, denounced what he called “the absurdity of this quaint theory of the right to a balanced ecology… The whole of civilization, the business of agriculture and the practice of medicine are precisely premised on altering/tilting/modifying the balance of nature to suit man’s needs and purposes.

“The use of human labor or tractors to cultivate the fields are intended to suppress the weeds which compete with crops for water, soil nutrients and sunlight.  We spray biological agents, organic as well as synthetic pesticides, on our crops to eliminate insects and diseases which damage them. We apply ointments, inject vaccines, take medicines and irradiate ourselves to rid our bodies of parasites, fungi, bacteria and viruses which imperil our health.

“By this absurd theory of balanced ecology, which unfortunately the SC en banc naively seemed to have adopted as its own, the whole of agriculture and the practice of medicine, which by their very nature alter the state of natural affairs to help man acquire food, fiber and shelter, and to protect our bodies from infections, and infestations, will have to be banned by application of the Writ of Kalikasan.”

For background, the Supreme Court recently decided to permanently halt the field testing of the genetically modified Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant developed by the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) at UP Los Baños (UPLB). It was a big negative hit to the morale of the scientists tirelessly working to discover new means to feeding our people.

As Dr. Javier puts it, “we are not world leaders in science by any measure and there are only a few precious fields of science where we are able to keep pace with the rest of the world. The SC unwittingly effectively denied us even that little space under the sun.

“But the real losers are the poor farmers themselves and the consuming public. Our small farmers are deprived of modern means of raising productivity, competitiveness and incomes. They are denied potential sustainable farming technologies that can substantially reduce the need for harmful pesticides to protect their crops. And they are prevented from having access to more climate-resilient crops in the future which can tolerate drought, temporary inundation and salt-intrusion.

“Big losers as well are the low-wage-income consumers who are ultimately penalized with high food prices and excessive pesticide residues in the food they eat. Likewise, the poor and malnourished, who are deprived of the benefit of improved nutrition built into the seed at no extra cost e.g. biofortification of rice with enhanced levels of Vitamin A (the Golden Rice).”

Dr. Javier explained eggplant is very susceptible to the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (FSB) insect which not only kills the plants but also renders the fruits inedible and non-marketable. The insect pest is so pernicious that farmers often have to throw away 50 percent to 70 percent of their harvest.

In order to protect their eggplant crops, farmers resort to chemical pesticides. Infestation is so bad that many farmers have to spray every other day. The more desperate ones have been observed to practice dipping each hanging eggplant fruit into a container full of chemicals.

The built-in resistance of Bt eggplant to the FSB was intended to replace the chemical spray technology which Filipino farmers currently employ to raise the eggplants we eat. Dr. Javier laments that instead of hailing the development by Filipino scientists of a naturally insect-resistant variety of eggplant as a significant step forward to reduce use of harmful pesticides in our food chain, our courts have declared “the Bt eggplant technology as constituting a grave and present danger (and an assault on) the Filipinos’ constitutional right to balanced and healthful ecology.”

Dr. Javier told me it is not true “there is no global scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops. Greenpeace is peddling this lie to justify application of the precautionary principle. The world’s leading national academies of science, the WHO, FAO and the European Food Safety Agency have all placed on record their position that GM foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts.”

Dr. Javier insists the consumption of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant is not potentially harmful to the health of Filipinos. The Bt eggplant is identical with the conventional eggplant except for the artificial introduction of a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.

The Bt gene confers to the eggplant the ability to synthesize a class of proteins called Cry1A which are toxic to the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (FSB) and other insects belonging to the order Lepidoptera (commonly referred to as butterflies). Cry1A proteins, while toxic to butterflies, are harmless to human beings, other mammals and other insects belonging to different orders like beetles, flies and mosquitoes.

Dr. Javier also pointed out there is nothing sinister about Bacillus thuringiensis. It is a very common soil bacterium the world over. Its insecticidal properties were first recognized by Japanese scientists in 1901. Large scale commercial production of Bt insecticide spray commenced in the US in 1958.

Dr. Javier pointed out Rachel Carson, in her landmark novel “Silent Spring” recommended Bt as a biological pesticide because it has much less environment impact than conventional chemical pesticides.

We often go to the deep end, thanks to lawyers with a limited view of the world. Indeed, IRRI may have to move out of the country because their work probably involves the same such thing the SC says is not natural.

God in Genesis gave man dominion over the earth and all that is in it. That includes improving on what nature provides us. What is important is for scientists to have a strong ethical conscience to know how far to go.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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