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Cornwall Alliance / November 9, 2021

Philippines’ Bold Step Towards GM Crops: A Blueprint for Other Developing Countries

Developing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America cannot afford to fall behind.

By Vijay Jayaraj

In September, the Philippines unveiled its Crop Biotechnology Center (CBC), aimed to make genetically modified (GM) food crops more accessible in the country.

The nation’s continued efforts to legitimize GM crop varieties are great news for its food security and nutrition needs. They come at a time when activists have been successfully lobbying against GM crops in many parts of the world.

Has the Philippines set a great blueprint for other countries to follow amidst the noise of anti-GM crop lobbyists? The answer is yes, and here is why it is critical for other countries to embrace GM crops.

GM Crops and Food Security

The Crop Biotechnology Center (CBC), established inside the compound of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), will play a key role in the Philippines’ quest for a robust agricultural sector that can meet the food security of the nation.

It is one of the country’s three biotechnology centers. According to an official page, it is a “P277-million center funded under the US Public Law 480 Program” that “focuses on applying advanced technologies that contribute to the improvement in performance, yield, and quality of important commodities including rice, corn, coconut, and various high-value crops such as mango, garlic, onion, tomato, cotton, cacao, banana, and abaca, among others.”

It is no secret that GM crops are among the best weapons we have in our fight against hunger, malnutrition, and energy insecurity.

After presiding over the opening ceremony, Philippine Secretary of Agriculture Dr. William Dar said: “The amount of investment we have poured into this state-of-the-art facility is our first line of defense against hunger. The recently-concluded UN Food Systems Summit noted that biotechnology and other scientific innovations have a role to play in meeting Sustainable Development Goal no. 2 on Zero Hunger.”

These recent developments in the Philippines are no surprise to analysts who have been following the progress of agriculture there. The Philippines was the first country in Southeast Asia to approve GM corn, also known as Bt Corn.

Edwin Paraluman, a pioneer in planting Bt corn in the Philippines, says GM crops have revolutionized agriculture and farmers’ livelihoods in that country. Not only is Bt Corn highly disease resistant, it can also help farmers have higher income and require less land area to produce high yields.

Paraluman also notes that these GM crops are safe and approved by organizations across the globe. “I have been eating it [Bt Corn] for the past 14 years and I am still hale and hearty. So, it’s 14 years that I’ve been planting this corn and there’s not been any adverse effect on our health,” said Paraluman.

Today, 40,000 Filipino farmers benefit from Bt Corn. The country went from being an importer to an exporter of corn. Thousands more are likely to benefit from the recent approval of Golden Rice, a GM variety fortified with Vitamin A inducing beta carotene. Vitamin A deficiency currently affects 2.1 million Filipino children, and Golden Rice will play a key role in reducing that number.

Other countries like the United States are already in advanced stages of utilizing GM crops. People seldom realize that the majority of the most important crops in the U.S. are GM varieties.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in 2018, “GMO soybeans made up 94% of all soybeans planted, GMO cotton made up 94% of all cotton planted, and 92% of corn planted was GMO corn.”

In Kenya, the approval of GM Cotton (Bt Cotton) has raised hopes of increased production by as much as 10 times in 2022. Government is looking at increased production from 20,000 bales in 2021 to 200,000 bales in 2022 thanks to Bt cotton.

But not all countries have been as fortunate.

Anti-GMO Movement Harms Farmer Freedom and Food Security

The anti-GMO movement and the organic farming philosophy threaten both the livelihood of farmers and the food security of nations.

In India, where 500 million people depend on agriculture and allied activities, farmers stage regular protests against the government’s decision not to allow GM crops.

Deepak Pental, geneticist and former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, finds the anti-GM stance of India’s political parties unjustifiable. “You need technology in space, military, telecom, medicines, but you don’t need technology in agriculture? … What is happening is atrociously ridiculous,” says Pental.

India has banned GM crops that have proven to be immensely beneficial in neighboring Bangladesh. Bangladeshi farmers had an “average of 19.6 per cent higher yield and 21.7 cent higher revenue” from GM brinjal/eggplant, a crop banned in India.

Today, farmers across India are defying the government ban and planting GM crops like Bt Brinjal. “These brave farmers are demonstrating their capacity to take on the risk society is imposing on them by denying them access to new technologies, including GM crops,” says a journalist from The Print.

Further, India’s ban on GM crops only impedes public health progress. India has the highest prevalence of clinical and subclinical Vitamin A deficiency in South Asia. Sixty-two percent of preschool children are deficient in vitamin A, leading to an annual 330,000 child deaths. India’s opposition to GM crops, especially Golden Rice, raises concerns surrounding lawmakers’ awareness about Vitamin A deficiency in the country.

There are numerous such examples from other countries where GM crops can be a vital tool to reduce malnutrition, increase farmer incomes, and ensure food security. Developing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America cannot afford to fall behind.

The Philippines has set a great example, and the model should be emulated in other countries. The sooner this happens, the sooner many poor countries will conquer hunger and malnutrition problems.

Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England) is a research contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and resides in Bengaluru, India.

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