Generally, the introduction of new technology raises apprehensions that could center on the idea of risks. This was dramatized in the case of Bt corn. When it was first introduced in the country, there were only two reactions observed – guarded skepticism and/or outright rejection.
However, instead of being reactive, the government together with the respected scientists, members of the academe and industry associations became proactive and looked into the opportunities that the technology can bring, not only to the agriculture sector but to the economy of the country as well.
This was the center of the discussion during a seminar conducted by the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) titled, “Modern Biotechnology and Agriculture: The case of Biotech Maize in the Philippines”, held at BAR Conference Hall on 25 of March 2010 in Quezon City.
The seminar was aimed to provide insights and foster public understanding of modern biotechnology, particularly on BT corn to allay skepticism and misgivings of people about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
GMOs are products of biological engineering that allows the transfer of specific genes within the organism or genes from one organism to another. BT corn is a GMO because of a certain gene from the naturally-occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that has been transferred to corn. This gene, coded for the production of a specific protein, delta-endotoxin protein can be used to control specific insects such as corn borer and other lepidopteran pests that causes tremendous losses of the corn industry.
Dr. Dolores A. Ramirez, national scientist and university professor emeritus of genetics and plant breeding at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), presented the structures and protocols developed by the government, for the introduction, testing, propagation and commercialization of modern biotechnology products in the country, to the participants.
In her presentation, Dr. Ramirez stressed the role of the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) as a focal agency tasked by the government to oversee compliance with biosafety policies and guidelines that include biotechnology research in the country. NCPB is an organized inter-department committee composed of scientists from the Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).
Meanwhile, Dr. Flerida A Cariño, physical scientist and member of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Biosafety Committee and professor of biochemistry at the Institute of Chemistry in the University of the Philippines Diliman, presented the technical descriptions of BT corn. She also discussed the struggles they encountered with both anti- and pro- GMO groups during the process of rigorous trials.
Dr. Cariño said BT corn has stirred animated and passionate debates on the streets, in academic circles, in mass media as well as in both chambers of the Philippine legislatures. In fact, the anti-GMO groups have filed petitions with local government units (where trials are conducted), the House of Representatives, the Senate, and even the Supreme Court that have resulted to various congressional resolutions and senate bills.
Processes are strictly supervised and monitored by the NCBP. Everything is religiously recorded and documented so as to ensure safety not only for humans but also to animals as well as to the environment, Dr. Cariño added.
On the other hand, Dr. Leonardo A. Gonzales from the Society Towards Reinforcing Inherent Viability for Enrichment (STRIVE Inc.), presented the socio-economic impacts of BT corn and their technological challenges to Philippine Agriculture. He discussed the different measures that need to be undertaken in order meet these challenges.
In his presentation, Dr. Gonzales said that, modern biotechnology has a profound impact in agricultural productivity and performs a key role in addressing four major development challenges in the Philippine agriculture sector: a) micropropagation or multiplication of newly-developed varieties through tissue culture; b) diagnostic kits or tools that can be used to rapidly detect plant, food, and feed pathogens and mycotoxins so that appropriate control measures could be implemented; c) the growing concern for food safety and the integrity of the environment, the increasing pressure to do away completely with chemicals and switch to the naturally-occurring substances or organisms – or the so called biopesticides; as well as d) biofertilizers.
These biotechnologies will increasingly be more precise and sophisticated with advances in molecular biology, chemistry, ecology, and information technology.
“Modern biotechnology will also be the principal source of technological changes in the Philippine agriculture in the coming decades that will bring about distributional impacts among different classes of producers, exporters and importers, as well as producers and consumers,” added Dr. Gonzales.
Victory in the battle for Bt corn commercialization in Philippines opens up opportunities not only to farmers but also to the economy of the country as well.