Quezon City, May 5, 2003 -- Anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) campaigners, who have been holding a hunger strike in front of the Department of Agriculture building in Quezon City for the 12th day yesterday, have slammed the government for failing to act on their demand for a moratorium on the propagation and commercialization of "Bt corn," a genetically engineered crop.

While Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo Jr. appears to be taking their arguments "more seriously now," Roberto Verzola, one of the four remaining hunger strikers, said in a statement that Lorenzo "continues to be non-committal to our petition."

"The longer he postpones the moratorium, the bigger the possibility that contamination will become more widespread, as Monsanto begins to distribute its poison-bearing seeds," he added.

Verzola, 50, vowed to continue his hunger strike "despite the increasing risk to my health," saying he was releasing his colleagues and their support groups from any responsibility "for the consequences of my decision."

Meanwhile, three farmer-leaders from Mindanao have criticized the hunger strikers for protesting the government policy favoring GM crops, particularly BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn.

The farmer-leaders from South Cotabato are Edwin Paraluman, who heads the Nursery Farmers’ Irrigators Association in General Santos City; Felix Cordero of the Matatag Farmers’ Irrigators Association and San Isidro Integrated Agro-Industrial Multi-Purpose Cooperative; and Rod Bioco of the Philippine Maize Federation (PhilMaize).

The farmer-leaders went to Manila in response to Lorenzo’s call for a dialogue with various sectors, including the anti-GMO campaigners, on the controversial issue, particularly Bt corn.

Cordero said, "They (hunger strikers) do not know our difficulties in controlling the Asiatic corn borer; they do not know a farmer’s life. The (Bt corn) technology can greatly improve our present yields because of the additional protection (that it gives to crops)."

"Our member-farmers, numbering thousands, strongly support the use of Bt corn considering that farmers abroad are already benefiting from the technology. Why should Filipino farmers be deprived?" Bioco said.

Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacterium that naturally occurs in soil and other common habitats.

Through a biotechnological process called genetic engineering, a specific gene of Bt has been introduced into a corn variety. The Bt corn produces its protein that serves as a natural pesticide against the destructive Asiatic corn borer, which is responsible for heavy losses incurred by Filipino corn farmers every year.

After years of scientific studies and farm trials since 1996, the Department of Agriculture approved the commercial release for propagation of Bt corn-MON810 last December.

These corn plants are ready for harvest within the second quarter of this year. The Bt corn is planted in the Ilocos, Pangasinan, Isabela and Camarines Sur.

According to the Los Baños, Laguna-based SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center, through network coordinator Sonny Tababa, farmers who have planted the Bt corn have reported the plant’s effective response in controlling the destructive corn borers.

The hunger strikers are protesting the government’s approval of the commercial propagation of Bt corn, and they are demanding a moratorium on GMO commercialization.

This is not the first time that the pro-Bt corn farmers in Mindanao have tangled with the anti-GMO campaigners, including Verzola.

Two years ago, at a Senate hearing presided over by Sen. Sergio Osmeña III, Paraluman’s group also assailed the anti-GMO group.

During the Senate hearing, Paraluman and other farmer-leaders who came all the way from Mindanao, questioned why the anti-GMO campaigners were opposing the research being conducted on Bt corn.

"Why deny us the technology?" they asked. "If this test will be proven effective and goes on commercialization, it can help the farmers’ produce and uplift their standard of living and help the food security program of the government."

The farmers asserted that only research could prove whether the technology is viable and safe or not. (Star)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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