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PHILIPPINES: Harvest of GM Corn Reaps Fears of Contamination

Alecks Pabico

MANILA, May 30 2003 (IPS) - As genetically modified corn began to be harvested for the first time this month, the focus of the Philippines’ debate on biotechnology crops is shifting to fears that the commercial planting of this corn variety may lead to the contamination of other agricultural produce.

Farmers and environmentalists opposed to the commercial distribution of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn, the transgenic crop now being sold to corn growers by the giant U.S. seed company Monsanto under the brand name YieldGard 818, have been alerting the government and the public to the potential risks of this move.

They say this may lead to the irreversible contamination of non-genetically engineered seeds and crops as a result of cross-pollination.

"That is the inevitable outcome of this scheme given that corn is a wind-pollinated crop," asserts Beau Baconquis, genetic engineering campaigner of Greenpeace Philippines.

With wind action, she says cross-pollination between Bt corn and native corn varieties will lead to the latter being contaminated with the Bt toxin gene, and this would be passed on to subsequent generations and neighbouring fields.

Baconquis also doubts if there are enough containment measures in place to guarantee non-contamination, noting that the Department of Agriculture had only started identifying the location of organic farms when planting of Bt corn began.

Bt corn is named for the naturally-occurring soil bacterium from which a synthetic gene version is inserted in the plant, so that it produces its own Bt toxins to kill pests like the Asiatic corn borer.

Bt corn was approved for commercial propagation by an interagency review panel of the agriculture department’s Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) in December 2002.

The final endorsement was preceded by assessments by government agencies and field tests conducted by Monsanto in at least eight pilot areas in the Philippines, in both Luzon island in the north and Mindanao in the south.

Artemio Salazar, acting director of the agriculture department’s corn programme, himself acknowledges corn’s nature as a cross-pollinated crop, which, he says, follows such a natural process of perpetuation "95 percent of the time”.

To avoid its adverse effects, Salazar says the agriculture department has advised farmers to employ "temporal isolation," planting Bt corn 21 to 25 days before or after the non-Bt corn is planted. This is the same method used to avoid cross-pollination between white and yellow corn varieties.

But the country’s corn programme chief allays fears of a runaway breeding of the YieldGard corn, which Monsanto is selling at around 4,200 pesos (80 U.S. dollars) per 11-kilogramme bag. That is twice as expensive as a 23-kg sack of the traditional hybrid variety, which is good enough for a hectare of land.

"Bt corn is not to be planted anytime, anywhere. We have arrangements with Monsanto regarding its deployment strategy. It’s to be used only when needed, one of the options available to farmers who want to make full use of the technology," Salazar says.

The plan, says Noel Borlongan, Monsanto director for government and public affairs, involves making available through its local distributors 15,000 bags of YieldGard 818 for the wet season, which starts in May-June and another 20,000 bags for the dry season which begins in October-November.

In December, Monsanto distributed 120 bags for the planting of its Bt corn’s F1 seeds for the propagation of future seeds.

Based on initial reports from Monsanto on the May harvests in the northern Luzon provinces of Isabela and Quirino, there have been marked increases in crop yields, at least as compared to those of conventional hybrid corn varieties sown during the wet planting season. This is usually the time when borer infestations are reported to be high.

In Luna, Isabela province, the recent average yields of Bt corn were pegged at 5.5 metric tonnes per hectare compared to 2.5 to three metric tonnes per hectare for non-Bt corn. In Ilagan, also in Isabela, an average harvest of nine metric tonnes of Bt corn per hectare eclipsed the six to seven metric tonnes yield of the conventional variety.

The results, Borlongan says, are generally consistent with the outcome of Monsanto’s field trials. Tests done in General Santos City in Mindanao in 2000 registered Bt corn yields 30 to 69 percent better than those of traditional corn varieties, attributed to corn borer damage-free leaves, stalks and ears, he adds.

But independent studies in 2000 disputed in the first place the belief that tremendous yield losses from corn borer infestation are still a grave concern in the 80s as it was in the seventies.

"The general trend is decreasing (yield losses)," says Pamela Fernandez, seed and science and technology division head of the University of the Philippines Los Banos’ agronomy department. Government scientists at the Philippine Rice Research Institute confirm this claim.

Greenpeace’s Baconquis is sceptical in the first place about Monsanto’s claims of increased yields in its field tests, arguing that there was no natural infestation in the area, which required the company to introduce corn borers. This scepticism has also been seen in countries like India, where the reported higher yields of Bt cotton have also come under criticism.

As far as the actual harvests are concerned, Baconquis says the data remain inconclusive given the comparison between two different planting seasons in the Philippines.

Anti-GMO activists have also complained about the secrecy shrouding the location of areas planted to Bt corn, which makes independent monitoring of the harvest yields difficult. Protesters staged a month-long hunger strike that ended in May to dramatise their opposition to Bt corn and called for a moratorium on its commercial release.

But Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo Jr, a former executive at the rice institute responsible for propagating hybrid rice, made it clear that the government would only entertain calls for a review given new "overwhelming" scientific evidence to reverse the commercialisation of Bt corn.

The government also dismissed recent appeals from the Independent Science Panel (ISP), composed of about 600 world scientists from 72 countries, to go slow on the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and to initiate a public inquiry into the matter.

It likewise ignored the position of 18 renowned Filipino scientists and medical experts, warning against the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes.

Saying that the government is "not taking sides to the exclusion of the other," Salazar assures that the plant industry bureau will be monitoring the propagation of Bt corn for risks it could eventually pose to human health and the environment.

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