Mutants on your plate

Mon, 08/29/2005 - 00:00
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reprinted from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism's iReport: "Feast and Famine"

Next time you bite into a crunchy fried chicken drumstick, consider what you could be getting from that mouthful: nutrients like selenium and niacin, saturated fat, cholesterol, and several kinds of proteins - one of them an insect poison. Don't spit out that chicken just yet. According to government, you needn't worry. That protein, genetically engineered into the chicken's corn feed, is lethal only to one organism -- the corn borer insect -- and is harmless to humans. 

Anyway, you don't really have much of a choice in the matter: four years ago, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued a National Biotechnology Policy committing the Philippines to, among other things, commercial planting and harvesting of genetically modified (GM) crops.

That makes the country the first in Southeast Asia, and the 18th worldwide, to officially embrace GMOs, genetically modified organisms. Bt corn, genetically modified maize used as animal feed, is already being grown by farmers. Soon it will be followed by GM papaya and rice, both intended for human consumption.

"Mutant plants" is a scary phrase, but it's a fairly accurate description of what GM crops are - they're produced through a change in their genetic structure. The question is, while you might enjoy seeing X-Men in your TV screen, would you feel the same way seeing X-Food on your dinner plate?

Critics have attacked President Arroyo's decision and raised the specter of "Frankenfoods" being released into the environment. Daniel Ocampo, genetic engineering campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, says that "GMOs are unnecessary, unnatural and they are threats to biodiversity and our environment."

Opponents of GMOs fear that Bt corn could scatter its seed into the wild, with unforeseeable consequences. Greenpeace believes "GMOs should not be released into the environment because there is no adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health." Opponents want GMO crops banned and other alternatives, such as organic farming, explored.

But Dr. Benigno Peczon, president of the non-profit Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), disagrees. To him, it's all about choice: farmers should be free to decide whether they want to use GM seeds, chemical pesticides or organic farming techniques. "Biotechnology is just one option, everyone finds their options", he argues. What's important is, "how can we improve food security in the country?"

For poor nations like the Philippines, GMOs seem to represent technological hope. Bt corn could boost agricultural output, an improvement the sector badly needs. The country produces between one and two million metric tons of corn, far short of the 5.5 million tons the feed processing industry alone needs. The shortfall has to be made up through imports. Dr. Peczon warns that without GM corn, "we will continually import feed corn, our poultry and pig industries will remain non-competitive."

The Bt corn seed the government has approved for sale in the country is Dekalb Yieldgard, which costs 80 per cent more than regular seed, but is supposed to increase harvests from between 30 to 68 per cent. Because the plant is engineered to be pest resistant, farmers don't have to spend as much on pesticides. The GM corn is sold by the US company Monsanto - which incidentally gained notoriety during the Vietnam War for making "Agent Orange", a herbicide which contained dioxin, a toxic and highly persistent pollutant. The company has since reinvented itself as a "life sciences" company aggressively promoting genetic engineering.

A growing number of Filipino farmers seems to like Bt corn. Three years ago, there were 129 hectares planted with the pest-resistant maize. Last year the area grew to at least 30,000 hectares, with some reports giving a figure as high as 100,000 hectares. Success stories claim that farmers have increased their productivity as much as 30 per cent. Dr. Peczon points out that such margins are crucial: "our corn farmers are among the poorest - they're subsistence farmers; if you can increase their yield by 800 kilos you're way ahead."

GMO opponents are not swayed. Ocampo of Greenpeace charges that "the government has done nothing but lie to the public - they say there's a growing trend in accepting GMOs but the countries they mention are few."


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