Board Chairman Teng calls on Filipino farmers to continue planting GM crops
After 22 years, crops developed through genetic engineering (GE), or biotechnology (biotech), have “unblemished record of safety.”
With this in mind, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) invited Filipino farmers to continue planting biotech crops, which they have already been doing through maize (yellow corn), the Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt corn.
In Asia, the Philippines pioneered the planting of Bt corn in 2002, and went on to attract hundreds of thousands of farmers.
“I will wish them to continue cultivating biotech crops because after 22 years, there’s an unblemished record of safety, and a very positive record of benefits,” said Singapore-based ISAAA Board Chairman Dr. Paul S. Teng.
It’s not only that the “safety record is so good, but also the economic benefit is so good, particularly for consumers,” he said in an interview.
Teng visited Manila over the week to reveal two new studies that highlight the continued social, environmental and economic benefits of the worldwide adoption of biotech in agriculture.
The ISAAA official said no one should deprive the public of the benefits of biotech crops.
“Bt talong (eggplant) is safe for everybody to eat. So, go ahead, adopt more (biotech crops) because safety is not an issue. (They) have unblemished record of safety,” he continued.
Teng was referring to Bangladesh which is now cashing in on Bt talong. He pointed out that the Muslim country registered a 249 percent increase in area planted with GM eggplant last year.
The studies are ISAAA’s “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017” and that of PG Economics Ltd., “GM Crops: Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2016.”
One of the highlights of the studies, as Teng noted, is that biotech crops will continue to increase, which last year rose at three percent.
“That’s quite a few million hectares (added) worldwide. But what is really fascinating, I think, last year, was the diversity of the biotech crops. There was quite a few new GMOs, or biotech crops, that became available, such as potato and apple, and so on,” he said. (GMO is genetically modified organism.)
What the new GM crops signify, he pointed out, is that consumers now have more choice.
In the case of the Philippines, biotech crops in the pipeline include the fruits and shoot borer resistant Bt talong (eggplant), Golden Rice, Bt papaya, and Bt cotton, which are being developed by various agencies.
Bt talong research is under the Institute of Plant Breeding of the University of the Philippines Los Banos (IPB-UPLB); Golden Rice is a biotech rice bio-fortified with pro-Vitamin A beta carotene through the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other supporters; biotech papaya being developed with delayed ripening and papaya ringspot virus resistance also under IPB-UPLB; and Bt cotton under development by the Philippine Fiber Development Administration (PFIDA).
Of course, Bt corn is already on its 14 years of cultivation in the country, and from 2003-2016 it has benefited the Philippines with an estimated US$724 million.
Biotech crops also helps in the environment, said Teng,managing director, NIE International Pte. Ltd., adjunct Senior Fellow, Center for Non-Traditional Securities Studies, RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore .
Climate change has affected many farmers, but using biotech crops helped in reducing greenhouse gases. They are helping farmers to adapt to climate change, improved productivity (food security), and increase their livelihood income, said Teng.
What of the future?.
ISAAA, he said, anticipates a continued expansion in the big crops like maize, which has a big potential; biotech soy beans also which is planted in big countries, with over 90 percent adoption.
“Maize is the one that has high potential, especially in Africa and Asia. We’ve seen that in the Philippines, Vietnam, in terms of planting.
“Beyond that, we hope to see new crops (in the pipeline) because a lot has been approved but not yet planted. So in 2018, we expect (to see) some new crops in the ground,” Teng said.
Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña assured continuing support for biotech-related initiatives in the country.
“Again, on the part of DOST, our immediate response is to develop and package an R&D program on biotechnology that would benefit our countrymen, specially farmers and consumers. Rest assured that DOST would support any undertaking on the move for biotechnology to be known, appreciated, and adopted,” he said in a speech read for him by DOST Undersecretary for R&D Dr. Rowena Cristina L. Guevara.
DOST is the lead agency for evaluation and monitoring of regulated articles (i.e. approved GE events) intended for contained use.
Meanwhile, the presence of counterfeit “biotech seeds” in the Philippines has affected farmers’ production.
Teng’s ISAAA report showed the area for GM maize farms across the country declined at 21 percent (from 812,000 hectares in 2016 to 642,000 hectares in 2017, while the Philippines ranked 13th in biotech commercialization last year.
There are bright sides, though.
“This area was comprised of 35,000 hectares HT (5.5 percent) and 607,000 hectares IR/HT (94.5 percent). The increase in percentage stacked traits was phenomenal from 83.6 percent in 2016 to 94.5 percent in 2017, proving that the more than 470,500 Filipino biotech maize farmers know the value and potential of stacked traits in obtaining significant profits,” ISAAA said.
But counterfeit biotech seeds threaten not only Filipino farmers’ livelihood but also the GM technology itself, said Dr. Rhodora R. Aldemita, director for ISAAA’s Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology.
In a separate interview, she recalled ISAAA learning about the problem since 2014.
“There is something going on about it because we know the sentiments of industry in terms of having their products sold and supported by the farmers, because farmers will really profit from biotech crops,” said Aldemita.
She and Teng warned of the counterfeit seeds’ impact on the GM technology for agriculture now widely used worldwide.
“It is very difficult for (genuine biotech) companies to do so (stop counterfeit seeds. Some aspects are on the regulators (for them to act. Big companies self-regulate; there’s nothing you can do stop others (from the scheme),” the latter said.
Aldemita blamed the selling of counterfeit seeds for the decline of maize planting area in the country as they affected the original and authentic biotech seeds cultivation.
Counterfeiters, Teng added, are stealing the seeds, stealing intellectual property (IP). “It’s an issue that is not just in the Philippines. It happens in (many) other countries, these counterfeit seeds. It is a world problem.”
The former said, “We have to support them and make farmers aware that it is not profitable to buy counterfeit seeds because in the long run they will be the ones who will be losing.”
Aldemita explained further.
While the counterfeit seeds (which are being sold by seven “enterprising” Filipino companies) are cheaper than authentic biotech maize seeds, farmers are bound to incur more costs because they got the fakes which are more expensive than conventional or hybrid corn seeds, she said.
“They (farmers) still have to buy insecticide or herbicide in order to control those problems (corn borers that are resistant to authentic biotech seeds), those farm insects to get the (seeds’) potential (yield),” the ISAAA lady official said.
Using the fake GM seeds, Aldemita said, farmers will notice that there are insects going in and they will see the insects are still on the plants, eating all their crops, the maize kernels.
“So, the farmers will be more inclined to buy insecticide and that will entail more costs. And if they buy insecticide they will have to hire more labor to apply it.
“They have to buy more implements to spread the insecticide. So, it is more costly to the farmers.”
In relation with this, an official of Monsanto, Gabriel O. Romero, senior regulatory and scientific affairs lead, relayed at the ISAAA event that companies involved in selling counterfeit biotech seeds could be “stealing 10 to 15 percent of market share (from the authorized sellers).”
He warned of the consequence of the fraudulent enterprise.
“Worse, farmers are offered low quality seeds and absence of stewardship component can lead to failure of biotech traits. Productivity and farmers’ income will be impact,” said Romero.
Only five companies, he added, are authorized dealers of biotech seeds, such as Monsanto; Pioneer/Corteva; Syngenta; BioSeed; Advanta; and Asian Hybrid.
Romero noted one of the measures taken by the government to prevent the proliferation of fake seeds.
“The issued a list of authorized hybrids from authorized companies and excluded fake seeds from the seed procurement program,” he said.
On ISAAA’s part, since it has no regulatory functions, Aldemita said they can only let people know — more so farmers — through information dissemination which is already going on, that counterfeit seeds are not proper to use.
“And so this is what ISAAA is doing, telling people through our endeavors in science communication and technology communication that support to counterfeit seed is not proper. It is not authorized, dealing is not an authorized business, and this is jeopardizing the technology itself and cheating the farmers into buying seeds that are not profitable at all,” she emphasized.
She relayed ISAAA’s message to government.
“Our government has a big job on this, because government is supposed to help farmers. So, in order to help the farmers they have to provide technologies and at the same time regulatory framework that will allow farmers access to good technology, monitoring of biotechnology should be there, and then sanctioning these unauthorized dealings should be there to help the farmers (realized) profitable farming produce at the end.”
She reiterated ISAAA’s warning on the counterfeit seeds’ impact, saying the technology is being jeopardized because the insects will learn to eat this half-efficacious seeds and serve as bridge for immunity to the authentic biotech seeds.
And when that happens, it will be bad for the technology itself, it will destroy the technology instead of saving it for longer years because the insects will become resistant to the protein inserted in the crop’s genome.
“It will again be difficult to control insects in the farm,” said Aldemita, and necessitates biotech companies to create another gene that will resist those insects.
Experts said creating new biotech crops takes about 10 years.
In ISAAA’s Brief 53, the global status of biotech/GM commercialization in 2017 registered upward of 17 million farmers planting various crops in 24 countries at an area of 189.8 million hectares (469 million acres. That’s an increase of 3 percent translated into 4.7 million hectares (11.6 million acres) compared to 2016.
The Philippines has been consistently in the Top 18 biotech mega-countries that grow biotech crops on 50,000 hectares or more. For 2017, the Philippines is at No. 13 with 0.6 million hectares planted with maize.
Rounding out the Top 5 are the United States is No. 1 with 75.0 million hectares; Brazil, 50.2 million hectares; Argentina, 23.6 million hectares; Canada, 13.1 million hectares; and India, 11.4 million hectares.
American farmers are on maize, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, potato, and apples; Brazil and Argentina, soybeans, maize, and cotton; Canada, canola, maize, soybeans, sugar beets, alfalfa, and potato; and India, cotton.
In the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), only three of its members are into biotech crops, the Philippines, maize, 642,000 hectares; Myanmar (Burma), cotton, 320,000 hectares; and Vietnam, maize, 45,00 hectares.
Also in Brief 53 (the Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in 2017), biotech crops are used in food, feed, processing, and cultivation, which are some of the updates on the status of approved events for biotech crops.
ISAAA said 67 countries “have issued regulatory approvals to genetically modified or GM crops” with Japan with the most number of approvals at 646 events, and maize has biggest number of approved events at 232 in 30 countries, while the herbicide tolerant maize (NK603) has most approvals (55) in 26 countries.
For food security, sustainability, and climate change, Brief 53 pointed, biotech crops’ contribution included increasing crop productivity (US$186.1 billion of farm income gains in 1996-2016); providing a better environment (less pesticide applications with a decrease of herbicide and insecticide use at 18.4 percent in the same period); conserving biodiversity by saving 183 million hectares of land from plowing and cultivation, also same period; reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that saved 27.1 billion kgs. of CO2 equal to removing 16.7 million cars off the road for one year; and helping alleviate poverty and hunger as biotech crops improved the lives of 16-17 million small farmers as well as their families for a total of 65 million people worldwide. (Edd K. Usman) #