MANILA, January 17, 2004 (MANILA TIMES) WITH last year’s gains from biotechnology still to be fully documented in the Philippines, an international organization promoting the use of transgenic crops said at least four corn farmers from General Santos City could testify for the positive impact on their life of Bt corn, a genetically-modified (GM) food crop.

One of them, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), is Edwin Paraluman, who owns a 1.5-hectare plot in Barangay Lagaw, General Santos City in South Cotabato province, one of the first areas where Bt corn was introduced in 2003.

“During the wet season where the Asiatic corn borer is severe, we won’t gamble with non-Bt corn anymore. Bt corn provides me with good quality grains. The corn is really clean and the profits are good,” the ISAAA quoted Paraluman as saying.

Carlos Andico, another farmer from the same village, said Bt corn was the answer to their biggest problem, the Asiatic corn borer pest, which if unchecked, could cut corn harvest by 30 to 40 percent depending on the location and on the weather.

His neighbor, Rafael Sarmiento, said with Bt corn, he does not need to use pesticides for the control of the pest anymore. “I was once hospitalized for using pesticides in my farm,” he said.

Felix Cordero also claimed his corn harvest improved a lot following his shift to Bt corn from the hybrid and traditional yellow corn varieties.

According to Dr. Randy A. Hautea, global coordinator of ISAAA, a farmer from the same village in General Santos City was able to increase his yield from only 3 metric tons (MT) per hectare to 7 MT per hectare after planting Bt corn.

On the average, Hautea said the harvest increment following the shift to Bt corn amounts to 1 MT for every hectare.

“Where corn borer is more severe, the increment will be higher,” he explained. “A one-ton increment per hectare is a conservative estimate.”

First in Asia

Unknown to many, the Philippines is the first—and so far the only—Asian country that produces on a mass scale a GM crop like Bt corn that is meant for both human and animal consumption. Bt corn is an improvement of the yellow corn variety, which is a main ingredient for livestock feeds.

While the three Asian giants China, India and Indonesia are now looking at tapping biotechnology to improve their food output, the Philippines actually had taken the first salvo when it allowed the planting of Bt corn, otherwise known as biotech maize, over 20,000 hectares in 2003.

The first greenhouse trial of Bt corn in the Philippines was conducted in 1996. The Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) approved the commercial production of the crop six years later in December 2002. American multinational firm Monsanto Philippines also won the trust of the Philippine Maize Federation, Inc. (PMFI) and began propagating its own Bt corn seeds in January 2003.

After battling controversies, the Philippines became one of the first countries in the world to grow Bt corn last year, way ahead of the United Kingdom and other European nations. Even as criticisms from environment and religious groups continued to persist, the government is well bent on expanding Bt corn production to 50,000 hectares by 2004.

The 2004 target became more apparent when the BPI approved the application of another American firm, Pioneer Hi-Bred Philippines Inc., for the commercial production of its own Bt corn.

Hautea said Monsanto would also most likely get the nod of BPI for the commercial production of the second GM food crop in the country, the herbicide-tolerant corn late this year.

Criticism to wane

Bt corn is a GM crop that is enhanced with the naturally occurring soil protein Bacillus thuringiensis, which enables the plant to resist pests such as the corn borers. The herbicide-tolerant corn, as the name suggests, strengthens the plant against herbicides that are meant to kill the growth-suppressing weeds.

Previous field trials in Cagayan Valley and Mindanao showed that first-generation Bt corn yields were 41-percent higher than traditional varieties, according to Hautea. In terms of net income, he said Bt corn farmers would earn 30 to 35 percent more.

What is more important, he said, is that the pest-resistant Bt corn reduces pesticide spraying by half. This would translate to the reduction of worldwide use of pesticides by 5,000 MT annually, he added.

“In some cases, Filipino farmers who tested Bt corn did not spray pesticides at all,” he said. “Bt is a natural pesticide.”

Hautea said he based his observations on the experience of farmers who tested Bt corn in Bukidnon, South Cotabato and Camarines Sur. While the single biggest planting of Bt corn took place in Cagayan Valley, Hautea noted that this was wiped out by the typhoon Harurot in July last year.

Hautea also predicted that the resistance to the commercial production of Bt corn and other GM crops would ebb into extinction as more countries in Europe decide to embrace biotechnology.

Critics of Bt corn have warned of its adverse effect on human health and environment.

Hautea, however, dismissed the charge as baseless. He also disclosed that the BPI has long been allowing the entry of at least 10 biotech crops from other countries like soybeans, corn and potato.

“The likelihood that we are importing Bt corn from the United States is very high,” he said.

Last year’s local Bt corn harvests were also dispatched for domestic consumption. Hautea noted that Bt corn crops in Bicol commanded higher retail prices because of their quality. He admitted that there is no law that requires labeling of biotech crops.

Cost benefits

Meanwhile, militant farmers groups accused Monsanto and Pioneer of trying to monopolize the seed production in the country.

According to the Resistance and Solidarity Against Agrochemical Transnationals, the commercial trade of genetically-modified organisms worsens poverty in the countryside and only serves the interest of “profit-oriented” transnationals that own and control them.

Hautea admitted that Monsanto is selling Bt corn seeds for P3,000 to P4,500 for every 18-kilo bag, which is enough to grow yellow corn in one-hectare plot.

“But the benefit of less labor and pesticide spray with Bt corn would more than compensate for the cost of the seeds,” he said.

Hautea estimated that 10,000 Filipino farmers were among the 7 million farmers in 18 countries that planted biotech crops last year. Some 15.5 million hectares were planted to Bt or herbicide-tolerant maize in 2003.

The other top GM crops are soybean, cotton, and canola. The ISAAA placed the global market value of GM crops last year at $4.5 billion. --Roderick T. de la Cruz

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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