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Government scientist defends genetically modified crops

NATURE is a huge laboratory, where animals’ and plants’ genetic modification or mutation is a daily occurrence, according to a Department of Agriculture (DA) official.

“Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] corn, which contains the Bt protein, for instance, cannot harm humans because it will need an alkaline environment to be activated, and human guts are acidic,” Dr. Antonio A. Alfonso, director of DA’s Crop Biotechnology Center, told some 300 third-year students at the Philippine Science High School (PSHS), main campus on Wednesday.

Genetically engineered to contain the insecticidal proteins from Bt bacteria, the insecticide property can be found in all parts of the plant. After a target insect consume the protein, it is activated in the alkaline gut of the insect, forming a toxin that paralyzes the insect’s digestive system and forms holes in the gut wall, Alfonso explained during the forum which was organized by the Department of Science and Technology, in partnership with the PSHS, in celebration of the Biotechnology Week.

Alfonso said scientists like him are only trying to accelerate the mutation of certain economically important crops to contain desirable traits in a controlled environment, or in laboratories.

“One thing more, the human body does not have receptors in its cells to receive the insecticidal protein,” said Alfonso, who is also a chief science research specialist at the Philippine Rice Research Institute.

According to an online source, a receptor is a protein molecule in a cell or on the surface of a cell to which a substance, such as a hormone, a drug, or an antigen, can bind, causing a reaction in the cell and, eventually, throughout the body. An antigen is a substance that the immune system “sees” as dangerous or harmful and, in response, the immune system develops antibodies to fight the antigen.

During the open forum in which several students posted questions on the safety of genetically modified foods, Alfonso cited several products commercially available that may contain genetically modified organisms, like the popular soy sauce, which is known to be a byproduct of fermented soy beans that is among the earliest crop to be subjected to artificial modification.

“For 10 years now, the Philippines has been propagating Bt corn, primarily for animal feeds, and is the only country in the Southeast Asia which propagates Bt corn commercially,” Alfonso also said.

The plant breeder-scientist also said that besides rice, corn and eggplant, the DA is also developing improved varieties of cotton and papaya using biotechnology, and is looking at the Philippine abaca as its next major project for variety improvement.

Opponents of GM crops, particularly Bt corn, are concerned that the toxins could target other beneficial or harmless insects.

The proteins produced by Bt have been used as organic sprays for insect control in France since 1938 and the US since 1958 with no ill effects on the environment reported, however.






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