Genetically modified corn taking root among farmers

Posted on April 19, 2012

TEN YEARS after the start of commercial propagation of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn in the Philippines, the transgenic crop is finding more acceptance among Filipino farmers.

Source: biotechnology coalition of the Philippines
Since then, the controversy stirred by Bt corn -- a genetically modified organism -- has simmered down, a far cry from a decade ago when protests accompanied efforts to introduce it to farmers.

The government allowed commercial propagation of Bt corn starting late-December 2002 with actual planting commencing soon thereafter.

Since then, farms planted with conventional hybrid corn have been steadily replaced with Bt varieties.

Bt corn was mainly developed to combat the devastating Asian corn borer or Ostrinia furnacalis, a major headache for Filipino corn farmers as the pest was found to reduce yield by as much as 30%-40%.

With Bt corn, pesticide inputs of farmers have been reduced by 60% as they no longer need to apply chemicals to curb Asian corn borer infestation, according to a 2006 study by Jose M. Yorobe, Jr. and Cesar B. Quicoy, scientists at the University of the Philippines, Los Baños.

Bt corn carries a transplanted gene that produces delta-endotoxin protein, which when eaten by the corn borer kills the pest.

Bt corn adaptation in the Philippines has been increasing. From just about 11,000 hectares in 2003, Bt corn farms have grown more than 60 times to nearly 690,000 hectares as of last year, said Abraham J. Manalo, executive secretary of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines, citing data from the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).

Except in the National Capital Region as well as Eastern and Central Visayas, Bt corn farms span 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 Cagayan Valley, in Luzon with 325,613 hectares as of 2011, BPI data showed.

Next is Region 12 -- also known as the South Cotabato-Cotabato-Sarangani-General Santos City cluster -- in Mindanao with 91,505 hectares.

Region 1, or the Ilocos Region in Luzon, came in third with 68,052 hectares, Bureau of Plant Industry data showed.

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

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

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

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.

Opposition to Bt corn propagation 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 yielded 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, namely: resistance to the Asian corn borer.

As years passed, seed companies developed more traits, including making the crop herbicide-tolerant. This, in turn, reduced labor cost as it eliminates the need for manual weeding of farms.

Norberto Valdez, also a farmer from Pangasinan, said his Bt corn farm now yields seven tons per hectare, compared to five tons per hectare using hybrid corn varieties.

Bt corn gives Mr. Valdez added income as he intercrops 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 achievement. It was the second for him, winning the same award in 2001 using a non-Bt variety since the transgenic crop then was still at field-testing stage.

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

Next to rice, corn is a key grain in the Philippines.

One major user of corn is the feed industry, which absorbs an estimated 70% of the country’s corn production.

The Biotechnology Coalition’s Mr. Manalo said the transgenic crop’s higher yield, lower production cost and minimal environmental impact were compelling factors for farmers.

He noted further “an increase in the population of beneficial insects like beetles, spiders and ladybugs” in Bt cornfields.

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

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

The Philippines has become a case study for Bt corn propagation. At least 70 observers from nine countries joined a recent tour of the Pangasinan and Tarlac farms that was organized by the Biotechnology Coalition 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 local seed companies would find themselves out of business if Bt corn were propagated, in the belief that multinational seed producers were “looking to monopolize the trade.”

But if the government would allow Bt corn propagation -- which could take some time -- Mr. Rajendra said he 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.

As in the Philippines, proposals for Bt corn propagation in India has met opposition from nongovernment organizations, the Indian farmer said.

Sonny P. Tababa, CropLife Asia biotech affairs director, said her group would “welcome criticisms” since these help formulation of safety regulations.

According to its Web site, CropLife Asia is a regional unit of CropLife International, which in turn is a global federation of plant science companies and industry groups in more than 90 countries. CropLife Asia itself counts Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Sumitomo, BASF and FMC Corp. among its members.

“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,” said Ms. Tababa, a Filipina who is a longtime biotech advocate.

She argued that Bt corn gives farmers more options, noting that farms without problems with Asian corn borer need not use it.

Whether using Bt or non-Bt corn, she reminded farmers that productivity still hinges on good farming practices.

“Good farming practices should not be forgotten, like the right time to fertilize or regular inspection of their farms,” Ms. Tababa stressed.

Local biotech advocates expect the country’s Bt corn production area to breach the one-million-hectare mark, or over a third of the country’s corn hectarage, by 2014.