Science and Environment

War over GMO rages

Rudy Fernandez - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The “GMO war” rages on, and the Philippines remains among the fiercest theaters of conflict over genetically modified organisms used to produce new crops to help feed the world’s growing population.

Pitted against each other in the word war and sometimes violent confrontations are the combined segments of the agriculture, research and academic communities advocating the genetically engineered (GE) crops and those who dub these as “Franken Food.”

The GMO war in the Philippines began more than a decade ago following the introduction of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) in corn farms in the Cotabato region in Mindanao. The experiments were spearheaded by the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB).

Bt corn is a product of the scientific process called biotechnology, defined as “any technique that uses living organisms or parts of organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop substances for specific uses.”

Through GE technique, a scientific gene of Bt (a bacterium that naturally occurs in soil) is introduced into a corn variety. The Bt corn produces its natural pesticide against the Asian corn borer.

The Bt corn technology spread like wildfire, resulting in its rapid adoption by farmers.

It was not long, however, before anti-GMO campaigners assembled and swooped down on the corn fields, destroying the experimental plants.

Nevertheless, the pro-biotechnology advocates won Round One of the GMO war, which centered on Bt corn. Consider:

• As of 2014, some 415,000 small farmers had been planting Bt corn in 831,000 hectares. This enabled the country to sustain its 12th rank in the roster of “biotech mega-countries” (those planting GM crops in 50,000 ha or more). The United States is the top mega-country, devoting more than 70 million ha to eight biotech crops.

• By 2012, Bt maize had enabled the country to become self-sufficient in corn, Rhodora Aldemita of the International Service for the Acquisition of agri-biotech Applications reported at a farmers’ congress held last Dec. 11 at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) in Los Baños, Laguna.

• GM corn production has also become a multibillion-peso industry in the country.

The GMO war has in recent years shifted to Bt eggplant being developed by the UPLB Institute of Plant Breeding in cooperation with international and national institutions. The arena has widened with the anti-GMO campaigners bringing the issue to the courts.

In almost a decade of studies, it was initially found that the Bt talong has built-in resistance to the eggplant fruit and stem borer (FSB), the most destructive pest attacking the crop in the Philippines and in Asia.

But before the Bt eggplant research could enter its last year, anti-GMO militants attacked the UPLB-IPB experimental farms in Bay, Laguna, uprooted the plants, and destroyed farm facilities. Property damage was estimated at P25 million. Eleven of the raiders, including two alleged members of Greenpeace, have been charged in court.

Activists also uprooted experimental eggplants at the UP Mindanao in Davao City.

Rice not spared

Anti-GMO militants also did not spare the Golden Rice being studied by the Department of Agriculture-Philippine Rice Research Institute (DA-PhilRice) and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

GR is a genetically modified rice strain that can produce beta-carotene, a rich source of vitamin A. It aims to tackle the problem of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which results in blindness.

On Aug. 8, 2013, anti-GMO activists destroyed a GR research farm of DA-PhilRice and IRRI in Pili, Camarines Sur and destroyed maturing GR plants.

The attack on the Golden Rice farm was published in more than a hundred major newspapers and science journals around the world, including The New York Times.

At a SEARCA-sponsored science forum, George Parrot of the University of Georgia reported that the Science Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science published a “Statement of Protest” pieced together by 11 internationally known scientists, two of them Nobel Laureates.

“The global science community has condemned the wanton destruction of these field trials... If ever there was a clear-cut cause for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and the non-government organizations, as well as individuals against Golden Rice,” he said.

Last March, Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, slammed his former organization for resorting to “sensationalism, misinformation and fear” in pushing its agenda.

Speaking at a science-media forum at SEARCA in UPLB at the head of the “Golden Rice South Asia Tour,” he assailed anti-GMO campaigners for at times violently opposing research on GR and other transgenic crops in the Philippines.

GR was developed by professors Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany. Research samples of the GR have been provided to IRRI.

Moore stressed that VAD is the biggest killer of children. Around the world, about two million children die every year from VAD-related diseases, and between 250,000 and 500,000 go blind.

In the Philippines, VAD affects 1.7 million children under five and 500,000 pregnant and nursing mothers, he added.

“There is no reason to oppose Golden Rice unless they have a hidden agenda,” Moore concluded.

Mark Lynas, another former GMO basher but now a strong exponent of biotechnology, had earlier revealed that Greenpeace has a $350-million annual fund to finance its anti-GMO campaigns.

In a press forum at a hotel in Makati City, the British book author, journalist and researcher asserted, “Most of the anti-GMO case is mythology, and does not stand up to scientific scrutiny.”

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