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Updates on the status of Biotech Corn and Golden Rice in the Philippines

Published on October 13, 2022 | Vina Medenilla, Manila Bulletin

“The Philippines can be considered a very quick adopter of new technologies, especially in the case of biotechnology,” said Dr. Gabriel O. Romero, Executive Director of the Philippine Seed Industry Association (PSIA). 

Biotech corn, or Bt corn MON810, was developed in the US in 1996, and since then, “efforts to introduce it to the Philippines began in earnest,” Romero remarked. After undergoing three phases of evaluation, the commercialization and production of Bt corn were approved in the Philippines in 2022. 

Compared to conventional corn, Bt corn MON810 does not require pesticides since it has stronger pest resistance and was developed to fend off certain pests that attack the crop, which, in this case, is the Asiatic corn borer.

409 farmer-respondents in a 2013 study in Pangasinan, Iloilo, and South Cotabato stated that among the things they like about Bt corn is that it offers a better yield, resistance to pests, and “nice, clean ears.”

Academics also discovered that it promotes cheaper production costs (60 percent reduction in pesticide use, lower labor costs linked to weeding and spraying), higher yields (34 to 41 percent higher than non-Bt corn), and increased earnings (about P7,080 to P10,132 higher than conventional corn).

A recent economic assessment of genetically modified (GM) corn was also released by researchers from UP Diliman and concluded that total factor productivity growth in the domestic corn industry increased by 11.45 percent due to the adoption of GM corn. 

However, along with the commercialization of GM seeds is the emerging threat of the unauthorized selling of fake GM seeds in the marketplace. 

“Some companies have bred the biotech traits into their hybrids and [are selling] them without the required stewardship measures. This is worrisome because this may lead to failure of the biotech traits. This is one problem that the industry is facing and we hope that the government will be able to work together with the industry to avoid the escalation of this threat because if the technology fails, we will soon come back to conventional farming of corn that will require lots of use of pesticides.” 

The assessments for the last 20+ years, according to Romero, “gained positive results, meaning it was efficacious against the local strain [of Asiatic corn borer] and it didn’t have any adverse effects on friendly insects and other non-target organisms, including the animals around the corn fields.” 

Golden Rice

Dr. Ronan G. Zagado, the leader of Golden Rice Program of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), defines Golden Rice as “ordinary rice improved with beta-carotene (a source of vitamin A) and gives the grain its golden color.”

In order to combat the Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) crisis, Golden Rice (GR) was created through genetic engineering and is reportedly safe for consumption. It is similar to conventional rice but contains more beta-carotene.

A cup of golden rice has the same amount of beta-carotene as 12 cups of kangkong, which can help improve the diet of Filipino children who are more susceptible to VAD.

Zagado added that a cup of this rice can give up to 50 percent of the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for vitamin A for preschoolers and two cups for adults, particularly pregnant and lactating moms. 

A survey by the Department of Science and Technology – Food and Nutrition Research Institute (DOST-FNRI) reveals that only two out of 10 Filipino households have adequate vitamin A intake. As a result, VAD remains to be a public concern in the country that can result in blindness and a weaker immune system against infections like diarrhea and pneumonia.

Biofortification, GMO crops like Golden Rice, and a diversified diet are some of the solutions being considered to address this issue.

The only difference between GR and ordinary rice is that the former contains more beta-carotene. The same practices for growing ordinary rice apply to GR. It tastes like typical rice, too. 

Zagado says that the program’s goal is for GR to be positioned as an intervention to help achieve improved food and nutrition security by 2027.

With the prevalence of VAD in millions of Filipino households, the target is to make Golden Rice available to the market and cover 10 percent of the total palay production in the Philippines, which will need 500,000 hectares planted with GR and five years to fulfill this aim. 

As of 2022, Golden Rice is being cultivated in 10 regions in the Philippines, including five DA- Regional Experiment Centers (REC), 19 seed growers, and 14 farmer-cooperators. 

There’s currently 23.1 ha for seed production and 15.35 ha for commercial production of GR. Most of the crops, according to Zagado, are expected to be harvested by the last week of September to the third week of November. 

A few weeks ago, PhilRice’s farmer-cooperator in Maguindanao harvested the first crop of Golden Rice (Malusog 1 variety), totaling 7.8 tons per hectare. The production of GR is expected to expand and develop in the coming years.

While these genetically modified crops are linked to higher nutritional content, critics also argue that the nutrients found in GMOs can be found in local crops.



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