Thursday, August 04, 2016

Hope for the Harvest

At the earliest light of day, farmers march to their fields with the hope of a good harvest. They till their land, plant seeds, and perform farming practices that they deem helpful to grow good crops and get high yields. A Filipino folk song best describes the life of a farmer in the field: Magtanim ay ‘di biro (Farming is not a joke).

On the other side of the field, scientists are growing crops not for the yield but to harvest information about the biotech crops they are studying. They carefully follow research guidelines alongside with the protocols implemented by the government with the hope that after all the backbreaking work; the crops they develop will eventually crossover to the farmers’ fields.

The tale of two Bt crops

In the Philippines, genetically modified (GM) maize resistant to a major insect pest and specific herbicides continues to be one of maize farmers' best options. After over a decade of commercializing biotech corn, the Philippines has finally achieved self-sufficiency. This has helped the country to save Php60M from corn imports from 2010-2013.

Eggplant, the top vegetable in the country, has been developed by the University of the Philippines to be resistant to its major insect pest – the fruit and shoot borer. The research started in 2003 following the strict rules implemented by regulatory government agencies. Alongside the conduct of the study, scientists and science communicators were equipping the public with facts about the biotech crop, which could potentially be the first GM food crop in the country. These efforts continued until the last leg of the research, which ended with a bang — biotech critics from Greenpeace filed a Writ of Kalikasan against the biotech crop in 2012.

Guided by the precautionary principle and the infamous Gilles-Eric Séralini’s journal article linking cancer to GM herbicide tolerant maize, the Philippine Court of Appeals gave the favor to the vigilant environmentalists’ plea to stop the trials in 2013. The following year, Séralini's paper was retracted by Food and Chemical Toxicology journal due to its questionable methodology which includes low number of samples and use of Sprague-Dawley rats that are tumor-prone.

The respondents to the case filed an appeal to review the case but the Court of Appeals affirmed its ruling that the trials violated the people’s constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology.  The respondents thus elevated the appeal to the Supreme Court for review.  Interventions from farmers and other organizations have been submitted to the court to reverse the earlier ruling. In December 2015, the Supreme Court declared that the testing of Bt eggplant should be stopped (but it is actually over before the filing of the case). For another blow to the scientific community, farmers and food/feed processors, the High Court also invalidated the Department of Agriculture Administrative Order No. 8, which covers the importation and/or release to the environment of GM plants. But the case did not end there because the Supreme Court ordered for a new set of regulations that will deal with GM crops.

In March 2016, five government agencies released a new set of regulations for GM crops, based on multisectoral public consultations handled by the National Committee of Biosafety in the Philippines. After four months, farmers, researchers and the rest of the community were surprised with another decision from the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the High Court reversed its earlier decision to stop the trials and granted Motions for Reconsideration submitted by the Bt eggplant developers and co-petitioners. Will Bt eggplant see the light of day in the Philippines soon?

Socio-economic experts have projected the potential benefits of Bt eggplant in the Philippines. Based on ex ante case studies, the average potential benefit of planting Bt eggplant ranges from 2,753-6,243 USD per hectare more than conventional eggplant varieties. This significant addition in profit is attributed to increased marketable yield and reduced pesticide use. In addition to higher income, there will also be reduction in pesticide use by almost 50 percent, which also means 19.5% decrease in environmental footprint. Because of decrease in pesticide use, health and environmental benefits will also be acquired. It is estimated that at 50 percent adoption rate of the crop, the benefits to human health is valued at 57,353 USD per year while the collective benefits to farm animals, beneficial insects and birds is estimated to be 155,841 USD per year.

Filipino farmers are eagerly waiting for the resolution to the Bt eggplant case. They are hankering for solutions because they are tired of getting infested produce that affect their families’ income. This could be the reason why a lot of eggplant farmers in the country are dipping their eggplant crops in a concoction of insecticides. They are out of options.

In South Asia, the same biotech crop also faced trial after trial. In India, even if Bt cotton has been proven to be safe and highly adopted by farmers over the years, Bt eggplant or brinjal is still in question.

Bt brinjal battle in Bangladesh

Farmers in the densely-populated country of Bangladesh finally got a taste of the benefits of crop biotechnology in 2014. Due to strong political will, Bt brinjal was approved for cultivation in 2013 and 20 small farmers planted the first seedlings of Bt brinjal on their fields in 2014. It is has been projected that Bt brinjal would generate a net additional economic benefi­t of 200 million USD per year for around 150,000 small brinjal farmers in Bangladesh. This breakthrough serves as an inspiration for other countries who are hoping to grow biotech crops in the coming years. As for the Philippines and India, who are also on the verge on commercializing the same biotech crop but halted by critics, hope remains in the hearts of farmers and scientists that this crop developed to minimize pesticide use and protect farmers’ health would eventually reach the farmers’ fields in due time.

The moral of the story

These stories highlight two main characters on stage: the scientists and the farmers. The scientists actually take two vital roles in the field of biotechnology: one as researcher and another as communicator. In a study conducted by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), it was shown that scientists devote only a small portion of their time for public engagement due to high demand of their research work and other responsibilities. Though there are science communicators who are trained to fulfil such task, the scientists are still on top of the credibility ladder to deliver facts on GM crops to the public. Thus, their efforts are highly needed to feed the minds of the public with right knowledge about biotech crops.

The farmers are the main protagonist in the story of biotech development. The primary goal in developing biotech crops is to be able to help farmers increase their yields and incomes by addressing their major concerns such as pests, weeds, and other stresses. Thus, the first generation of biotech crops are focused on developing the insect resistance and herbicide tolerance of crops.

Just like any technology, biotechnology does not answer all of farmers’ concerns. However, with the documented benefits of biotech crops, such technology cannot be denied for farmers who are looking for solutions to their farming problems. After all, they have a huge task of bringing food to our tables. By 2050, the world’s population may reach 9 billion, demanding for doubling present global food produce. With this demand, every tool in agriculture’s toolbox is necessary to the mend hunger and poverty.

Written by Kristine Grace Tome, Program Associate at the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology, ISAAA.