Watching the parade pass us by

Posted by on Dec 18, 2015 in Activities, News | 0 comments








by Dr. Emil Javier

‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’

– Robert Kennedy


During the celebration of agricultural biotechnology week last November, a reader inquired why the science community seem to be so perturbed over the imposition of the writ of kalikasan by the courts on the further development of insect-resistant GMO Bt eggplant.

Indeed the Biotech Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), chaired no less than by the Dean of the UP Manila College of Public Health, Dr. Nina Gloriani, had on many occasions bewailed the mis-informed application of the writ against modern biotechnology research when precisely the protection of public health and the environment the rationale for the writ of kalikasan are the objectives of the research.

The answer is straightforward: As concerned Filipino scientists we are keenly aware of the rapid progress being made all over the world in the development of new products and processes using genetic engineering. Many of these innovations can have profound impacts on farm productivity, farmers’ incomes, health and nutrition, integrity of the environment and economic competitiveness.

We have the training and expertise to exploit these opportunities to advance our national interests. Unfortunately, the application of the writ of kalikasan on agricultural biotechnology research is tying our hands so to speak, and we are made to hopelessly watch the parade pass us by.

All our Presidents, starting with Ferdinand Marcos, and formalized by Executive Order by Cory Aquino, to the present administration of Benigno Aquino III have adopted an enlightened national policy of safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology. We were so much ahead among developing countries in training people, establishing institutions, and instituting a regulatory framework so much so that our neighbors like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam and several countries in Africa, have sent their own regulators to study and observe how the Philippine biosafety system works.

These gains are now slowly eroding before our eyes. Greenpeace-instigated objectors to genetic engineering have vandalized GMO crop experiments in UP Los Banos and UP Mindanao research stations. So-called militant farmers have wantonly destroyed the IRRI-PhilRice Golden Rice field trials in Bicol. And here come the courts, sustaining their pleadings for a halt to the field tests of eggplant made naturally resistant to fruit borer insects by incorporating resistance genes from a common soil organism, Bacillus thuringiensis. We are now very close to commercializing our first Pinoy GMO crop but that is now on hold.

The irony is that this bacterial gene to which they are objecting have been incorporated into so many crops like corn, soybean and cotton. Since 1996, 29 million hectares of GMO BT crops have been harvested worldwide but to date no single incidence of poisoning nor allergy had been attributed to the presence of the novel bacterial gene.

Our frustration is exacerbated by recent developments in modern biotechnology which can have profound impacts in our efforts to become food secure, create more livelihoods and be economically competitive. These are opportunities which we cannot afford to miss. Let me cite a few:

Our sugar industry is facing heavy competition as trade is further liberalized in the ASEAN community by 2015. Our yields are very low because of lack of irrigation among other things. Hence, the desirability of developing drought tolerant sugar varieties.

Our Indonesian counterparts have developed and have recently received approval for commercialization of GMO drought tolerant sugarcane. Thailand, Australia and Brazil, the three major sugar exporting nations, likewise have well-organized research teams with the same purpose but using different novel genes. We have to keep up with these major sugar producers if our sugar industry were to survive and compete.

As much as 60–70% of the phosphorus in the corn grain is locked up in an indigestible complex molecule called phytin. That much phosphorous is wasted as phytin is passed out in the animal manure and becomes a pollutant in the environment.

Phytin can be broken down by an enzyme called phytase which unfortunately monogastric animals like poultry and pigs do not produce. Hence, commercial phytase enzymes obtained from bacteria, yeast and fungi had to be added to the feed as supplements.

Chinese scientists have succeeded in transferring phytase genes from a fungus Aspergillus niger into hybrid corn. This genetically modified phytase corn is expected to improve phosphorus utilization by poultry and pigs by 60 percent and significantly reduce phosphate pollution as well.

Nitrogen is the most required fertilizer nutrient for crops. A nitrogen-use efficiency gene, alanine aminotransferase, isolated from barley is now being incorporated into upland rice varieties in West Africa.

Salt tolerance genes from Arabidopsis thaliana, a mustard species, are likewise being engineered into rice varieties in Africa. These salt tolerance genes will become very useful to our rice planted in low-lying coastal areas which are prone to inundation as sea levels rise due to climate change.

Less useful to us nevertheless interesting are GMO potatoes and apples less prone to browning without any change in taste and flavor and cost of growing.

The world of science marches on. We have to keep pace as best as we can. Otherwise, we shall be hopelessly watching by the sidelines as the parade passes us by.



Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP).

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