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A decade after: Bt corn farming robust in PH

MANILA (MindaNews/16 April) –Ten years after the commercial propagation of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn in the Philippines, the transgenic crop seemed to have found a place in the hearts of Filipino farmers.

Between then and now, the controversy stirred by Bt corn, a genetically modified organism (GMO), has simmered down, a far cry from what happened a decade ago when massive protests marred its proposed introduction in the country.

In fact, Bt corn cultivation in the Philippines has now become a sort of a case study for farmers from neighboring countries in as far as the transgenic food crop is concerned.

To date, the Philippines is the only country in Asia that allows the planting of biotech corn. The government permitted the commercial propagation of Bt corn in late December 2002 with actual planting commencing thereafter.

Since then, farms planted to conventional hybrid corn varieties have been steadily replaced with Bt corn as Filipino farmers have apparently been convinced of the economic benefits of growing the genetically modified crop.

Bt corn was mainly developed to combat the devastating Asian corn borer (ACB) (Ostrinia furnacalis), a major headache for Filipino corn farmers as the pest was found to reduce yield from 30 to 40 percent.

With Bt corn, pesticide inputs of farmers are reduced by 60% as they no longer need to apply chemicals to contain the ACB, according to a 2006 study by Jose M. Yorobe Jr. and Cesar B. Quicoy, scientists at the University of the Philippines Los Banos.

Bt corn carries a transplanted gene that produces delta-endotoxin protein, which when eaten by the corn borer makes the insect sick and eventually die.

Going Bt corn

In the Philippines, Bt corn adoption has grown by leaps and bounds.

From just about 11,000 hectares in 2003, Bt corn farms have drastically expanded to nearly 690,000 hectares as of last year, said Abraham Manalo, executive secretary of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), citing data from the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).

Except for the National Capital Region and Eastern and Central Visayas, Bt corn farms span from hundreds to tens of thousands of hectares in the rest of the country’s 14 other regions.

The largest Bt corn farms are located in Region 2 or the Cagayan Valley Region in Luzon island with 325,613 hectares as of 2011, the BPI data showed.

Next in line is Region 12 or SOCCSKSARGEN Region in Mindanao island with 91,505 hectares, with Region 1 also in Luzon, coming in third with 68,052 hectares, it added.

It may be recalled that in August 2001, hundreds of farmers and militant group members stormed the field-testing site of Monsanto in Tampakan, South Cotabato, which is located in Region 12.

They uprooted the Bt corn plants that were then about to be harvested in what was the first bold protest of its kind against the multi-location field trials of the transgenic crop in the country.

Back then, the provincial government of South Cotabato also joined the opposition forces against Bt corn, having passed a resolution banning the planting of the transgenic crop in the area.

Actual field trials for Bt corn in the country started in 1999, with the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines clearing it for commercial cultivation in December 2002.

The opposition versus Bt corn was anchored on concerns over human health and the environment as well as the threat to food security as the transgenic plant would supposedly contaminate conventional farms.

But 10 years after Bt corn was approved for commercial propagation, farmers who adopted the biotech crop seemed altogether satisfied with it, particularly with the yield.

Johnny Viado, a farmer for 10 years in Pangasinan with a 0.2-hectare corn farm, has shifted to Bt corn and found it more productive.

“Before with the conventional corn varieties, my farm yields an average of less than half a ton. With Bt corn, the harvest improved to a little over a ton,” he said.

Initially, the Bt corn variety in the country has only one trait, which is the resistance to the Asiatic corn borer. As years went by, the seed companies develop stacked traits that allow the plant to also become herbicide-tolerant, which reduces labor cost as it eliminates manual weeding of the farm.

For Norberto Valdez, also a farmer from Pangasinan, he said that his Bt corn farm yields seven tons per hectare.

Previously, he recalled that his farm only yields five tons per hectare using the conventional hybrid corn varieties.

Bt corn for Valdez is a value-added income as he intercropped it in his mango farm.

In Mindanao, a farmer landed last year in the national spotlight after winning the “Most Outstanding Corn Farmer” of the Gawad Saka, an award given by the Department of Agriculture.

Jose Lorenzo, from Tupi in South Cotabato, cited Bt corn as one of the important factors to his winning the award.

He won the same award in 2001 using a non-Bt variety since the transgenic crop then was still in the field-testing stage.

“Aside from the fact that I used Bt corn, I also employ crop rotation.” Lorenzo, who started using Bt corn in 2002, said when asked about his farming practices.

Besides rice, corn is another major economic crop in the Philippines. The major user of corn is the feed industry, which absorbs an estimated 70 percent of the total corn production.

BCP’s Manalo attributed the Filipino farmers’ adoption of Bt corn to the transgenic crop’s higher yield, lower production cost, and safe environment impact.

“[There has been] no negative effect on insect population in Bt corn fields. [On the other hand], an increase in the population of beneficial insects like beetles, spiders and ladybugs [has been noted],” he said.

To date, eight Bt corn varieties have been approved for commercial propagation in the country, with an estimated 270,000 Filipino farmers cultivating them as of 2010, Manalo said.

Multinational companies Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer developed these Bt corn varieties, with the two latter companies setting up multi-million dollar seed production plants in Panganisan and Tarlac, respectively.

With the Philippines as the only country in Asia that allows the commercial cultivation of Bt corn, it has become a study destination for farmers, students, scientists and government regulators from other countries.

Just recently, along with a select group of journalists, they toured Bt corn farms in Pampanga and Pangasinan.

At least 70 participants from nine countries joined the event organized by the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines and CropLife Asia, with the support of the multinational seed companies.

One of the participants, H.D. Rajendra, an Indian farmer in Bangalore, said there are fears in his country that many local seed companies would be boxed out of business if Bt corn will be propagated in India, because the multinational seed producers are allegedly “looking to monopolize the trade.”

But if the government would allow its propagation, which looks like a long process to go, Rajendra would like to give it a shot.

“Bt corn farming looks promising, the yield is high compared to conventional hybrid varieties,” he said after the farm visits.

In India, the government has yet to approve the cultivation of Bt corn, which has drawn strong opposition from non-government organizations, the Indian farmer said.

Sonny Tababa, CropLife Asia biotech affairs director, said they “welcome criticisms” to biotech crops, noting this helps strengthen the formulation of safety regulations.

“People have concerns in new technology, but what is important is we engage in dialogue and understand where the fear comes from. Out of that fear, strong regulations can be formulated,” Tababa, a Filipina who is a long-time biotech advocate, said.

For Bt corn, Tababa said this gives farmers an option, noting that farms without problems on Asian corn borer need not use it.

Whether it’s a Bt or non-Bt corn variety, she reminded farmers that productivity still hinges on good farming practices.

“Farmers should not forget that good farming practices should not be forgotten, like the right time to fertilize, or the regular inspection of their farms,” Tababa said.

In two years time, or by 2014, Philippine biotech advocates expect the country’s Bt corn production area to breach the one million-hectare mark. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)

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