Biotechnology is key to PHL food security

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Nearly 20 years after the term “biotechnology” was first used in 1919 by Karl Erkey, a Hungarian engineer, hybrid corn was developed in the United States through self-pollination. It was in 1933 when hybrid corn became commercially available in the US and caused corn yields to triple. This, plus other developments such as the discovery that DNA is genetic molecule, helped launch the so-called Green Revolution in many countries.

According to the biotech timeline prepared by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the modern biotechnology era began in 1973 when scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen successfully spliced a gene from one organism and moved it into another. In 1978, Boyer’s lab created a synthetic version of the human insulin gene. Four years later, scientists would create the first transgenic plant—a tobacco plant resistant to antibiotic. This paved the way for beneficial traits, such as insect resistance, to be transferred to a plant.

More genetically modified crops were developed in the 1990s, but it took a while for these crops to reach the Philippines. The country started cultivating GM corn—the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize—in 2003. Before allowing the sale of Bt corn seeds to farmers, the government developed a set of guidelines contained in Administrative Order 8, Series of 2002. AO 8 was the first set of biotech guidelines released in Southeast Asia and is considered stringent due to its numerous requirements.

ISAAA data showed that Filipino farmers earned an estimated $560 million from planting GM corn from 2003 to 2014. Aside from increasing farmers’ income, GM corn also helped the Philippines in achieving self-sufficiency in corn. The increase in corn production supported the continuous expansion of the livestock and aquaculture sectors, which are dependent on feeds.

Recognizing the importance of biotechnology not only to food production but also to human health care, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Proclamation 1414, which declared the last week of November as National Biotechnology Week. This event has undoubtedly increased the awareness of Filipinos on biotechnology and its numerous applications. However, more should be done if we want the Philippines to truly benefit from biotechnology.

Filipino farmers have yet to tap other GM crops nearly 16 years after Bt corn was first approved for commercialization. AAMBIS-OWA Rep. Sharon Garin said “regulatory complications” are hampering the commercial release of biotechnology products. Garin refiled House Bill 3372, a measure she authored, which calls for the establishment of the Biotechnology Authority of the Philippines.

As a policy-making body, the proposed BioAP will be responsible for reviewing, improving and implementing biosafety regulations for the products of modern biotechnology. If approved, it is expected to expedite the regulatory decision-making process in biotechnology. Garin said the current regulatory regime is based on outdated knowledge and assumptions, and must be revised.

In view of the threat posed by climate change and shrinking farm areas to food production, we call on Congress to approve this measure. Local growers must be allowed to gain access to high-yielding varieties that will allow them to feed the country and also increase their income. Traditional farming methods have served their purpose, but these can no longer
support the needs of a growing population.

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