THINK ON THESE: BIOTECHNOLOGY LEADER

The Philippines remains as biotechnology leader in Asia, according to the Global Agricultural Information Network (Gain) report released by United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service in Manila.

The Gain report described the Philippines, which planted Bt corn in 2003, as “the first Asian country to allow the planting of a genetically engineered(GE) crop.”

Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium so called because it was first isolated in the Thuringia region of Germany.  It produces a protein that paralyzes the larvae of some harmful insects.

Scientists, through genetic engineering, have taken the Bt gene responsible for the production of the insecticidal protein from the bacterium and incorporated it into the genome of plants.  As such, the plants have a built-in mechanism of protection against targeted pests, including Asian corn borer, a major pest that ruins up to 80% of traditional corn varieties in the country.

The Gain report said that since its introduction, Bt corn area planted has reached over 5.9 million hectares.  From April 2016 to March 2017, Bt corn was planted on an estimated 655,000 hectares, relatively flat compared to the previous year’s level.

The area planted to Bt corn would have been higher “if the use of counterfeit GE seeds were included,” the report pointed out.

“Sold as conventional seeds, counterfeit GE seeds are produced with Bt and Roundup Ready (RR) traits,” the report explained.  “Although cheaper, they are inferior in quality and sold without proper stewardship measures. The same source estimates counterfeit GE seeds at around 10% of overall Bt corn seeds.”

Biotechnology comes from two words.  Bio is derived from the Greek word bios, which means life.  Technology is the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a preexisting solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function.

Thanks to science, the process of biotechnology has been hastened.  The methodology seems like a work of fiction.  Listen to the words of Dr. Frank A. Shotkoski, an adjunct professor at the Cornell University in the College of Life Science Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics: “Traditional methods of crop improvement require the mixing of genes by making specific crosses, observing and selecting for specific phenotypes (traits) in the offspring.

“This has been a very effective tool for crop improvement and our ancestors have been quite successful in using these techniques to develop the productive, tasty and nutritious crops that we have today,” Dr. Shotkoski explained.

But modern biotechnology completely changes that.

“Biotechnology allows us to introduce genes into crops that could never be achieved using traditional/conventional methods because the gene tied to a specific trait (i.e. insect resistance, disease resistance, herbicide tolerance, etc.) doesn’t exist in species,” Dr. Shotkoski said.  “Often traits of interest can be introgressed into a crop much faster using biotechnology tools such as marker assisted breeding, gene transformation and/or gene editing.”

He sees biotechnology “as an important component of the many technologies and choices that we have available to provide food security, human nutrition and health for an ever-expanding population.  This is especially important for agriculture where farmers are faced with many biotic and abiotic constraints, most of which can’t be dealt with using conventional technologies.”

Ismail Serageldin, during his time as vice-president of World Bank, had also foreseen biotech of playing a crucial part of agriculture in the 21st century.  “All possible tools that can help promote sustainable agriculture for food security must be marshaled,” he stressed, “and biotechnology, safely developed, could be a tremendous help.”

In the Philippines, support for GE products remains strong among local corn farmers, hog and poultry raisers, feed millers, food processors, academe, and other end users, according to the Gain report.

“Although supportive, large domestic food and agribusiness companies that are already using GE products prefer to remain silent on the issue,” the report added.

On the other hand, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including environmental groups, organic agriculture advocates, and other civil society groups represent vocal opposition to agricultural biotechnology.

But “the overwhelming majority of Filipinos remain indifferent (towards GE products),” the report said.

Unfortunately, there are some hitches.  “Despite the established safety of GE products, increased market acceptance is dampened by the misinformation campaign by anti-GE advocates,” the report said.

The last known GE consumer survey among Filipinos was in 2008 by the Singapore-based Asian Food Information Center.  “The survey indicated that 59% of Filipino consumers had a positive perception of biotechnology and 73% believe they would benefit from food biotechnology in the next five years through improved quality and more affordable prices,” the report stated.