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New biotech rules boost agri prospects

Filipino farmers can now heave a sigh of relief. Government agencies have finally approved a joint department circular that essentially allows the propagation of genetically modified crops in the Philippines in compliance with a Supreme Court decision late last year.

The circular highlights the growing importance of GM crops to overall agricultural production and their impact on the lives of ordinary farmers. The agriculture sector contributes roughly 10 percent to the country’s gross domestic product but accounts for roughly 30 percent of the total employed labor force. This means 30 percent of the labor force has to share in only 10 percent of the country’s GDP—an indication of low productivity in agriculture.

Low agricultural productivity compounds the poverty problem in the Philippines. An estimated 70 percent of the poor live in rural areas, and about 66 percent are in agriculture. Reducing the poverty incidence in the Phililippines, thus, is effective only if farmers’ income is increased.

The joint department circular relieves the anxiety of farmers, livestock and the feed milling industries and prevents a food supply crisis. The high court earlier ordered a new set of  rules on genetically modified organisms and revoked previous regulations in December 2015.

Government agencies led by the Departments of Science and Technology, Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources, Health, and Interior and Local Government moved swiftly to draw up the new rules. They held five public consultations in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, with  all the stakeholders comprised of farmers groups, the scientific community and the environment and civil society groups involved in the discussions.

The new circular enhanced the regulations on risk assessment by involving local governments, on top of a thorough review by concerned government agencies.

The technical working group led by the DoST made sure that the concerns raised by the Supreme Court have been addressed. The new rules tightened environmental scrutiny before biosafety permits are issued, addressing one of the loopholes the Supreme Court cited when it voided the old rules, which were in place since 2002.

The Department of Agriculture, as the lead agency, will also require more documentation from suppliers of GM products.

It is also tasked to form the scientific and technical review panel comprised of a pool of non-DA scientists with expertise in the evaluation of the potential risks of regulated articles to the environment and human health.

The JDC assures the public that biotechnology for agriculture will be put to good use. Biotechnology gave hope to the rural areas, especially in strife-torn Mindanao. Former Moro Islamic Liberation Front soldiers gave an account of their life as farmers and the benefits of sowing GM crops.

Life-changing

Maitum S. Salendab, 27, was a former defender of the land in a remote town of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao. He said  he was so used to holding a gun and rifle he did not know what else to do. He was uneducated until he tried and discovered to do corn farming at the very lands he was assigned to protect.

“Dati hawak ko lang baril, pero nang matuto ako magtanim ng mais, unti-unti kong natutunan na mas mabuti pala ito,”  Maitum says. He adds with the initial P10,000 he earned farming biotech corn, he was able to finish high school, build a home and run a small sari-sari store for his family. He still wants to continue planting biotech corn.

From South Cotabato, Mhads Mamantal said he was able to get back the land he mortgaged with his earnings from planting biotech corn, because for the first time he had more than enough, unlike before when he was using the ordinary corn seeds.

Rice farmer Luisito delos Santos of Cabioa, Nueva Ecija was inspired by his brother, Florencio, who planted SL-18H in last year’s dry season. Florencio harvested 280 cavans over a 1.8-hectare land at 70 kilos per cavan. The farmer effectively yielded 10.89 metric tons per hectare, about three times the country’s national average yield of three to four MT per hectare.

They are just some of direct beneficiaries of biotech corn and hybrid rice. Those willing to tap the biotechnology for rice and corn in order to improve their lives were seldom asked how their lives were changed for the better.

The promise of continuing better yields and higher farmer’s income is now big for Maitum and other biotech corn farmers with the signing of the JDC.

The Philippines has been a trailblazer in biotechnology and scientific research in Asia since the International Rice Research Institute held its headquarters in the province of Laguna 56 years ago. Along with the scientific community in adjacent University of the Philippines Los Baños, IRRI spearheaded biotech research in Asia involving the development of better crop varieties attuned to the varying needs of each country.

With the approval and implementation of the new biotech regulations, scientists and farmers now look forward to the continuation of their work, including the research on golden rice, delayed ripening papaya and Bt eggplant.  

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Topics: Ray Eñano , New biotech rules , agri prospects , genetically modified crops
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