Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the Philippines have been controversial, with a number of people around the world saying they have negative impacts on the environment, can cause “genetic pollution” and are not good for human consumption.
However, amidst the controversies surrounding this biotechnological development, more than 110 Nobel laureates and over 3,500 scientists all over the world have signed a letter addressing and urging Greenpeace International “to reexamine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology; recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies; and abandon their campaign against GMOs, in general, and Golden Rice, in particular.”
Last year, the Philippines approved Golden Rice–a genetically modified variant of rice–to combat malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency in the country. This makes the Philippines one of the first countries to do so. Fairly recently the number of countries that approved GMO crops has increased to four. Despite this approval, critics have not retracted their criticisms and continue to raise the possible impact of approving GMO in the Philippines.
In this article, we look at the GMO debate holistically and see what experts say about this decision:
GMOs in the Philippines
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) products were introduced to Philippine agriculture by Filipino researchers as a way to combat nutrient deficiency and malnutrition. According to the World Food Program (WFP), about one out of nine people in the world do not have enough food to live a healthy life. This amounts to 795 million people in the world who are hungry, most of whom come from developing countries, where 12.9 percent of the total population lack food to eat.
In the case of the Philippines, this is an even bigger problem. The Philippines has the highest poverty incidence among its Association of Southeast Asian Nations peers. With a national poverty of 25.8 percent, according to World Bank data, the Philippines has a lot of work to do to alleviate poverty and address issues of public health, such as VAD.
This is where GMO, such as the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, Bt talong (eggplant) and Golden Rice, enters: as a solution to relieve and, eventually, end the battle against VAD and hunger. Moreover, it also aims to give the farmers a chance to provide food while farming sustainably and efficiently without the threat of having shortage or attacks of insects that kill their crops, GMO experts and advocates say.
Scientifically, there are several researchers and agriculturists who have vouched for the advantages of GMOs in the Philippines. However, its use, production, safety, and sustainability remain in question for many sectors. These issues continue to be a contentious point against GMOs.
“The Good and The Bad”: The Pros and Cons of GMOs
In the field of agriculture and genetic engineering, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have already been studied and tested with careful investigations by renowned scientists. Despite this, people have raised a number of concerns about GMOs, specifically on their impacts. These concerns include: the possible negative economic and environmental impacts of GMOs in the Philippines, “genetic pollution”, and safe human consumption.
In 2017, the Makabayan bloc filed House Resolution 1294 that seeks an inquiry into the development of Golden Rice in the country. In the resolution, Reps. Arile Casilao of Anakpawis, Carlos Isagani Zarate of Bayan Muna, Emmi de Jesus and Arlene Brosas of Gabriela, Antonio Tinio and France Castro of Act Teachers and Sarah Jane Elago of Kabataan have directed the Committee on Agriculture and Food to conduct an inquiry to determine Golden Rice’s impact on health, environment and farmers’ rights.
Most of the contentions against GMOs in the Philippines revolve around their impact. Lawmakers and various sectors see the production and commercialization of GMOs as something that can negatively affect the country’s economy, health, and environment. The biggest concern, however, lies in the sustainability of the crops.
Lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc said agricultural research must be based on the farmers’ capacity and needs. Additionally, they argue that the production and use of GMOs must also take into consideration the diversity and complexity of the environment. They cite the abundance of natural resources, particularly that of local rice varieties, which are better suited for the country and assures a better yield for farmers.
The house resolution further argues that “Genetically modified crops are not sustainable means to provide food for the people, as they greatly compromise the environment, livelihood of the farmers and health of the consumers”.
The Makabayan bloc argued that Golden Rice is “merely” a promotional product of agro-chemical corporations using public institutions “to make possible the social acceptance of genetic engineering in food and agriculture,” further saying that the technology, methodology, seeds and variety to advance the Golden Rice are being owned by Syngenta, an agro-chemical transnational corporation that profits by investing in the global seed industry.
In defense of GMOs in the Philippines
Against these contentions, many experts and lawmakers stand for the use of GMOs, arguing that their production, use, and consumption bring more positive impacts.
Diocesan priest Fr. Emmanuel Alparce, a member of the Department of Agriculture Biotech Program Technical Committee on Information, Education and Communication, commented that lawmakers should be more open minded about GMOs in the Philippines. He made the remark after legislators belonging to the Makabayan bloc filed a resolution seeking to conduct an inquiry on the development of Golden Rice in the country. He cites the evidence and data from various studies that shines light on the benefits of the various genetically modified organisms, such as Bt Maize, and emphasizes how lawmakers should listen to these experts as well.
Leonardo Gonzales, founding president and chairman of Sikpa/Strive Inc., said in a public forum lecture, entitled “Socioeconomic Impact Assessment: The Bt Corn Experience,” Bt is “a naturally occurring soil-borne bacterium where it produces crystal-like proteins that selectively kill specific groups of insects.”
The Bt corn is a GMO which, through genetic engineering, the Bt gene was incorporated in the corn plant’s DNA to enhance its resistance against insect attacks, such as the Asiatic corn borer. This method helped many farmers produce corn resistant to insects and saved them money from using pesticides.
“Bt corn required 54-percent less pesticides than ordinary hybrid [OH] corn in order to produce the same amount of corn grain from 2003 to 2011,” Gonzales said.
He said, “Bt corn adopters, on the average, were 9-percent more efficient in the use of fertilizer than ordinary hybrid corn-seed users.” This, after more than 10 years of planting the GMO plant, has indicated positive environmental impacts among corn producers.
Another finding, according to Gonzales, was that the average yield advantage of Bt corn over OH corn was 19 percent and a cost advantage of 10 percent compared to OH corn, with a 42 percent higher return on investment from 2003 to 2011. Last, Bt corn consistently outperformed OH corn by 29 percent in meeting food and poverty thresholds in the same timeframe.
More recent studies concerning GMOs have further highlighted its positive impacts. Additionally, many individuals in support of GMOs also argue that much of our products already involve the use of GMO, be it in food, vaccines, household products, and even clothing. These considerations, as well as the recent studies, paved the way for further development in biotechnology and GMO rules in the Philippines.
What Can GMOs in the Philippines Do?
While the debate on its usage rages, the use of GMOs is indisputable. This is because the genetic modifications on these crops were made to answer existing problems in the various industries. Unsurprisingly, this translates to agricultural innovations as well.
So what can GMOs bring to the agricultural table of the Philippines? How can GMOs impact the Philippines economically?
Multiple gains from GMOs vary depending on the specific crop, fruit or product modified. Apples, for instance, which turn brownish immediately as they oxidize once exposed to air, have now been modified genetically to prevent this from happening.
“Studies we made in 2014 show that 83.4% of farmers exposed to genetically modified corn declared that it resulted in higher yields and income,” Professor Saturnina C. Halos, a member of the Biotech Coalition of the Philippines and University of Berkeley alumna, said.
About 78.7% of them also said Bt corn reduced their daily costs or expenses, particularly on pesticide use as most GMO crops have been inserted with genes resistant to pests. From 1996 to 2016, when GMO crops grew tremendously, it is estimated globally reduced pesticide usage hit 620 million kilos, and in 2015 alone, 37.4 million kilos.
She estimated that benefits from GMO corn alone has meant additional income for local corn farmers of over P10 billion, which translates to bigger budgets for children’s education, home improvements, additional farm capital or surplus funds for a vehicle and other needs or wants.
Russel Reinke, PhD in plant science and a rice breeder from IRRI, cited IRRI’s successful Golden Rice program, which aims to fortify rice with proteins and vitamins through genetic modification, which perfectly adapts and is carried over in succeeding generations in compliance with Mendel’s law on genetic trait transfer and selection that makes it easier for propagation.
Vitamin A deficiency, which is high in many children of the poor, can be corrected with the insertion of the Beta-carotene gene into what is called “Golden Rice,” because of the goldish color from Beta-carotene, which is nontoxic and converts to vitamin A in the body.
She added that the cotton-based clothes we wear are made of GMO cotton, or the medicines we take and rising obesity among Asians that is traced to excessive intake of bad carbohydrates like rice, white bread, sugary drinks and sweets, can be checked with simple changes in diet behavior, a shift to brown rice and the recent launching of the IRRI’s new thrust towards bio-fortification of rice.
A study by Professor Jeyakumar Henry of the University of Singapore noted that because diets of Asians are 67 percent rice on the average, and much higher among the poor, it is a welcome move to fortify rice itself with protein genes and vitamins, only made possible because of GMO research.
The high percentage of rice consumption and, subsequently, the high glycemic index, which measures bad carbohydrates, have been confirmed scientifically to be the reason behind the rise in obesity among Asians. This means glucose released from excessive carbs can trigger spikes in insulin from the pancreas that could develop into diabetes, which worsens further with sedentary lifestyles of sitting idly most of the time, and lack of exercise. Henry noted that about 1.4 billion people are now struggling with obesity.
The Future of GMOs in the Philippines
GMOs in the Philippines still have a long way to go, whether it be in terms of research, policy, or usage. With the ever-growing innovations and discoveries in science, the current roster of GMO crops can further improve. Time and application will tell us more about genetically modified organisms in the future.