Who’s afraid of genetically modified chickens?

DEALING with controversies can be stressful and migraine inducing. Still, I welcome heated discussions over certain topics if only because it will give light and popularize what was once obscure but nonetheless important issues. Take for instance the recent decision of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to revoke the incorporation papers of online media site Rappler. Overnight, my social-media feeds are filled by posts of corporate law experts talking about Philippine Depositary Receipts and media ownership. Each posts will generate responses—and not just from lawyers or law students—either criticizing, defending or clarifying the SEC’s decision.

This is why I welcome the controversy—and the public debates—over the cultivation and consumption of genetically modified (GM) crops in the Philippines. And this is one long- running controversy, which started in 2001 when farmers and environmental groups protested the field-testing of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn in South Cotabato. The debate over the benefits and dangers over Bt corn, a GM crop that’s resistant to the Asian corn borer, has seen all stakeholders—lawyers, scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), consumers, journalists, government officials and corporate executives—weighing on the issue. But more than sparking a nationwide debate, the controversy over Bt corn has made more people aware of genetic engineering, biotechnology and the hard science behind food production. 

Albeit strong opposition, the Philippine government allowed the commercial propagation of Bt corn starting December 2002. From just 6.03 million hectares planted with Bt corn, the area has expanded to over 800,000 hectares in 2016, making the Philippines among the world’s biggest producers of GM crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

The commercial success of Bt corn, however, didn’t offer any free pass to those who want to field-test and cultivate other GM crops, such as the pest-resistant Bt eggplant and vitamin-enrinched Golden Rice in the Philippines.

In 2010 farmers and NGOs uprooted Bt eggplant that were being grown in UP Mindanao and has led to a lawsuit, which saw the Supreme Court ruling in December 2015 that suspended field trials of Bt eggplant owing to the nullification of the Department of Agriculture  Administrative Order (AO) 08-2002 as the AO was found insufficient in enforcing biosafety protocols. The high tribunal reversed its ruling in August 2016, granting the motions for reconsideration filed by the ISAAA, Environmental Management Bureau, Crop Life Philippines, University of the Philippines Los Baños Foundation and University of the Philippines.

Last year the Philippine Rice Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute have applied to the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) for a biosafety permit for the direct use in food, feed or for processing of Golden Rice. As of this writing, the research agencies are still waiting for BPI’s approval, but those who back Golden Rice are also facing stiff opposition from some environmental groups.  According to a report published by the BusinessMirror last September, legislators belonging to the Makabayan bloc filed a resolution seeking to conduct an inquiry on the development of Golden Rice in the country. House Resolution 1294, filed last September 7 by Party-list 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.

The protests against GM crops may be a big headache for its proponents, but as an observer and concerned consumer, I welcome them if only because I can at least be assured that what I’m consuming is not only safe to eat but also safe for farmers to cultivate.  This is crucial if only because we might have to deal with more complex products of genetic engineering in the future, such as genetically altered animals. That may sound weird for you for now as there’s no GM animal here in the Philippines, yet. But in other countries like the United States, genetically altered animals are now being raised. As early as 1999, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved the raising of genetically modified goats that can make a drug in their milk that prevents blood clots. In 2015 the US FDA has also approved genetically modified chickens that can produce eggs that can treat lysosomal acid lipase deficiency—a rare genetic condition that prevents the body from breaking down fatty molecules inside cells.  Last year a Massachusetts-based company sold its first batch of transgenic salmon to Canada.  In India scientists at a research institute in Mysore are developing disease-resistant GM silkworm.

I have yet to hear of any local company or research agency venturing into GM livestock, but as what I learned from one of the talks organized by the Department of Science and Technology during the National Biotech Week held in November 2017, it’s important for the Philippines to develop biosafety measures for transgenic animals if only because we might import them in the future.   

According to Claro Mingala, scientist at the Livestock Biotech Center of the Philippine Carabao Center, the Philippines has no regulatory framework yet for GM animals.  However, there are now efforts to draft regulations on animal biotech products and these include insects, such as GM silkworm. Several meetings so far have been conducted, but Mingala said that such regulatory framework is important to ensure public safety.

“We don’t want to jeopardize safety. But our [regulatory framework] should always be based on science,” he said.

Indeed, Mingala’s statement best sums up what I think should be the major consideration in whether approving or halting the field-test, cultivation and importation of GM crops, animals and insects. And that is—strong, verifiable, science-based data that can guarantee that the benefits far outweigh whatever losses incurred from the production and/or importation of GM crops/animals/insects. 

-Written by Prime Sarmiento in BusinessMirror’s Prime Commodities Column.  See original article link here.

Prime Sarmiento is a longtime business journalist who specializes in food, agribusiness and commodities-trade reporting. Her stories have been published in both local and international publications, including Nikkei Asian Review, China Daily, Science and Development Network and Dow Jones Newswires.

Comments and ideas are welcome at prime.sarmiento@gmail.com.