Story & Photos by Edd K. Usman | Special to the BusinessMirror
WHAT’S 5.41 years, or 65 months, or 1,950 days? That’s how long it takes to get all the requirements before genetically modified (GM) products can be released in the market.
Perhaps not many know it, but that’s what is happening in the Philippines.
And it means lost opportunities for the country in terms of exports, lost opportunities for farmers and lost opportunities as well for scientists and researchers.
Advocates of modern biotechnology (biotech), or genetically modified organism (GMO), want to hasten the process to help the government “ensure the health and well-being of Filipinos, promote competitiveness, help reduce hunger and poverty and help mitigate the effects of climate change.”
This was according to the Explanatory Note of a draft legislation, titled “An Act to Support Modern Biotechnology for Sustainable Rural Development in the Republic of the Philippines and Appropriating Funds Thereof.”
Speaking of funds, Chapter VI (Miscellaneous Provisions) of the draft allots P500 million for the law’s initial operation.
“Thereafter, the funding needed to fully implement the provisions of this Act shall be included in the annual General Appropriations Act,” the draft bill said.
Hopefully, help is on the way for the Philippines’s initiatives to raise farmers’ economic status and put more food on as many Filipinos’ table as possible, and compete in the global market for GM products, as well.
But to achieve the goal there is a long process ahead, which will depend on the two chambers of Congress—the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Remember the case of the Golden Rice, which proponents claim can help in addressing vitamin A deficiency among Filipino children? Or the field testing of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) talong (eggplant), which the Supreme Court stopped in 2015?
Urgency of legislation
The National Academy of Science and Technology of the Philippines (NAST) conducted a seminar on “Advancing Philippine Agriculture through Plant Breeding Innovations and Updating Biotech Regulations” on April 25. NAST is one of the two advisory bodies of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).
In the event, held at a hotel in Alabang, Muntinlupa City, biotechnology advocates discussed the draft bill.
Dr. Benigno Peczon, a Balik Scientist and president of the Coalition of Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP) Inc., presented the proposed legislation before leaders of biotechnology in the country, with a few coming from abroad.
Peczon told this journalist in an interview that they have yet to transmit the draft bill to the House of Representatives, saying that they are targeting middle of May to do it.
Nonetheless, he cited the urgency of the legislation as he hammered on the 65-month-long process in completing the requirements for GM products’ commercial release in the country.
“We have to pass this soon because the poverty in this country is a big problem, and we are falling behind our neighboring countries. This is such a useful technology, but we are tying up ourselves because of that Supreme Court ruling. Our regulatory process is way too slow,” Peczon pointed out.
Food exports that will earn for the country are not being made because some Filipinos themselves are preventing this from happening, he added.
“We need an enabling legislation to move it forward. We need it right away,” he continued.
Asked about the reason that holds back the production of modern biotech products, Peczon cited ignorance. He said the biggest stumbling block is that so many people don’t know enough about it, as he blamed anti-GMO advocates who, he said, are sowing disinformation about biotechnology.
“They scare people. But if they know the facts, it is a proven technology already. There is no need to be scared,” he said, emphasizing that disinformation is just a “phantom scaring” of people.
Peczon cited the case of the Philippines.
“We’ve been using GMO products for the last 16 years, and [those] abroad for 20 years without a single documented case of any health issues.
“It is time we stop scaring people because it is proven already. It is here [in the Philippines already], why are we holding ourselves back?” he asked.
He added that even business groups were also into scaring people about biotechnology.
Take the case of an orange, Peczon said, with producers putting the label “non-GMO” on it.
“But there is no GMO orange, so why are [the producers] placing [the label]? They are fooling the public so they will buy a ‘non-GMO’ orange. They [producers] are really lying to get a competitive advantage. It’s cheating,” he pointed out, adding that he saw in some supermarkets some orange products labeled non-GMO.
To counter the disinformation, the CAMP president said there is a need to launch an information campaign. Just as important is to talk with food manufacturers because many are now putting in labels that amount to false advertising, he said.
Anti-GMO Filipinos, he said, even bring foreigners into the country to scare fellow Filipinos, that it will cause cancer; that it is bad for the environment.
“None of it is true, none of it is documented. Those people who claimed [of biotech health issues and harm to environment], they were proven wrong,” Peczon noted.
To be known as the “Modern Biotechnology Act of 2018,” the draft bill seeks to establish an agency called the Biotechnology Authority of the Philippines, or BioAP, to be attached to the DOST.
The BioAP will absorb the functions of the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines, including other modern biotech regulatory bodies and abolish them at the same time.
Furthermore, Chapter II of the draft bill says it “shall review existing regulatory bodies and processes with a view to rationalize and integrate the regulatory decision-making process in consultation with competent national government agencies.”
Support for the bill
The draft bill gained support from other advocates of biotechnology at the NAST seminar. Among them are Dr. Randy Hautea, global coordinator of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, and Dr. Rhodora R. Aldemita, crop scientist and director of ISAAA Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology.
Hautea welcomed the legislative initiative on biotech, describing it as the “first time.”
The ISAAA executive cited the draft bill’s significance, such as that it acknowledges the contributions of biotechnology to national development as it provides for continuing growth and applications of biotechnology.
“So, it is one package that provides development boost and, at the same time, carries the cautionary requirement that it supports a safe and responsible use of technology,” Hautea said.
With the government’s national program of providing adequate and safe food for food security, this technology can really help, Hautea said, citing the country’s experience with biotech corn, which increased corn productivity and increased availability while making sure the product is safe.
Hautea was referring to Bt corn—the first and still the only GM crop being commercially cultivated in the Philippines. At one time it had over 400,000 farming families involved in planting the corn to over 702,000 hectares.
Promote R&D; all-encompassing
Aldemita said the draft bill would promote research and development (R&D) on biotechnology, give incentives to scientists and educate scientists, especially on agribiotechnology.
She said that, at first, she thought it was focused only on regulation. The ISAAA plant scientist suggested that any regulation on modern biotechnology “should be science-based, which is what we have now. It is science-based but not product-oriented.”
“When they said this is product-oriented, it’s very good, and we support this biotech bill. We hope that our House of Representatives—and when [the bill] gets to the Senate—can pass it,” Aldemita said.
She cited the importance of the bill to education—to students—because at present the Philippines lacks manpower that can develop new technology and, at the same time, transfer it to farmers.
“This biotech bill, it’s going to be all-encompassing, not only in research but also in commercializing [GM products], and especially on education about technology, not only to farmers but to students. So, we support that,” Aldemita reiterated.
Technology for farmers
She gave assurance that, once the bill is passed, ISAAA could help by having it more understood by the general public through a collaboration with Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture Biotechnology Information Center.
“Today, science is where innovation is, and students who understand science will be the ones to think and innovate; they will be the ones to create technology for our farmers,” Aldemita said.
Obviously, the biotech bill answers the clamor of GM adopters to have a legislation promoting biotechnology.
In 2016 the Philippine Maize Federation Inc. urged the Department of Agriculture to spearhead the crafting of a law on agribiotechnology to protect farmers and the food chain.
The bill’s Explanatory Note recalled a 2015 statistics that showed about 21.6-percent poverty incidence in the Philippine, which is “highest among farmers [34.3 percent].”
Anti-GMO to pro-GMO
Proponents of the bill also cited staunch anti-GMO personalities in the past who later became pro-GMO after learning of the true science-based data on biotechnology, such as Bill Nye, Patrick Moore and Mark Lynas.
“My conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. Over a decade and a half with 3 trillion GM meals eaten, there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no one has died from eating GM,” Lynas said in his apology statement after years of being a big thorn against GM organism proponents.
Image credits: Edd K. Usman