Farmer-leaders from Mindanao have signified their support for the application of modern biotechnology tools in agriculture, even as they keenly await the commercial release of “Pinoy biotech crops.”
Twenty-eight farmer-leaders from six regions in Mindanao, including the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, added their signatures to more than 200 other previous signatories in the “Declaration of Support for the Application of Biotechnology in Agriculture.”
The event coincided with a recent seminar on biotechnology on Camiguin Island in Northern Mindanao that was organized by the Asian Farmers Regional Network (Asfarnet) Philippines with the Biotech Program Office of the Department of Agriculture.
During the seminar, the farmer-leaders were briefed by scientists about traditional plant-breeding processes, as well as the current application of modern biotechnology tools through genetic engineering.
Both human and natural selection processes, according to Prof. Floro Dalapag, a geneticist-plant breeder from Xavier University, have led to the development of, for example, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussel sprouts and the familiar head cabbage as variants of a common wild species of cabbage (Brassica oleracea).
He explained that, with advances in biotechnology tools, plant breeding has become more precise through genetic modification.
Dr. Rey Ordonio, a plant molecular geneticist from Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and project leader of the Philippines’s collaborative Golden Rice Project with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), provided updates on the research and development of Golden Rice.
He said Golden Rice has been successfully developed to contain beta-carotene and provide 30 percent to 50 percent of the estimated average requirement for vitamin A.
The use of Golden Rice shall be a complementary measure to curb the country’s vitamin A deficiency problem, according to Ordonio.
Data from the eighth National Nutrition Survey in 2013 of the Food and Nutrition Research of the Department of Science and Technology showed that 20.4 percent of Filipinos are affected by vitamin A deficiency. This includes 2.1 million children aged 6 months to 5 years old, and half a million pregnant and lactating women.
Meanwhile, testing by the PhilRice and IRRI has indicated that Golden Rice is as safe and nutritious as any other rice. It has been found to be non-toxic and non-allergenic.
Three international bodies namely, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand in August 2017, Health Canada in March 2018 and US Food and Drug Administration in May 2018 have attested to the food safety and nutritional quality of Golden Rice.
Moreover, the Golden Rice has been found to perform well in the field and yields as much as any local inbred rice variety.
Well aware of the many serious challenges in agriculture and food production, such as dwindling farmlands, crop damage from pests and diseases and the constant threat of flooding, the farmer-leaders hailed the potential contribution of modern biotechnology to sustainable food production and food security, as well as in poverty alleviation and environmental health.
Edwin Paraluman, one of the earliest users of genetically modified (GM) Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn and chairman of the Philippine Farmers Advisory Board, attested to the yield and income benefits of GM corn.
From his previous subsistence corn farming and much use of pesticides, he now enjoys bumper crops from the family’s cornfields in South Cotabato. No longer a poor, long-suffering farmer hounded by uncertainties at the farm, he now enjoys financial freedom, with bright business prospects for new agri-enterprises.
Dahlia Non, a Church lay leader who served as member of the local Biosafety Committee during the field trials of Bt corn in Tampakan, South Cotabato, in the 1990s, recounted the questions and issues that hounded her during that time.
Now, she says South Cotabato is practically “GM corn country” because farmers have seen the field and yield performance of Bt corn.
The farmer-leaders noted that local research institutions like the Institute of Plant Breeding at the University of the Philippines Los Baños and Philippine Fiber Development Authority, besides the PhilRice, have already developed modern biotechnology crops that are in various stages of required testing.
Among these “Pinoy biotech crops” are fruit and shoot borer-resistant eggplant (Bt eggplant), delayed ripening and papaya ringspot virus-resistant papaya and bollworm-resistant cotton (Bt cotton).
They urged “local government hosts to support the endeavor that will bring benefits to farmers and consumers and their future generations.”
They also vowed to keep themselves “updated on science-based and factual information,” so as to “become partners in policy and decision-making on the use of agri-biotechnology to attain food sustainability and food security.” The farmer-leaders expressed “support for products of modern biotechnology as component of a long-term and sustainable strategy that is better for the environment, better for the farmers and better for consumer health.”
Headed by Reynaldo Cabanao in the Philippines and Paraluman in Asia, Asfarnet started in 2003 after a capacity-building workshop in the Philippines attended by farmers from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.