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11:58 PM August 13th, 2013

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By: Neal H. Cruz, August 13th, 2013 11:58 PM

A few days ago, a group of farmers, obviously led by environmentalists, invaded a small experimental farm and destroyed the rice seedlings being grown to test crops with genetically modified organisms.

Environmentalists are afraid that GMO food may contain substances that are harmful to humans.

For some time now, Filipino environmentalists led by the European lobby group Greenpeace has been battling Filipino farmers to convince them not to grow the “Bt Talong,” a product of modern biotechnology process. Greenpeace has filed a case in court to stop Filipino scientists of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) from introducing a variety of eggplant that has a built-in ability to fight pests and diseases. It has been able to secure an order from the Court of Appeals restraining the UP scientists from continuing with their plant experiments.

What are GMO foods, in the first place? They are food from plants whose genes have been modified to produce varieties that are higher-yielding, more nutritious and tasty, and are resistant to pests and diseases. For example, genes of plants that are resistant to pest and diseases are mixed with the genes that are higher yielding, more nutritious and tasty such as the Bt Talong. Planting this variety of eggplant means doing away with chemical pesticides. It naturally protects itself against plant borers and other pests.

Food crops lost to pests and plant diseases will be enough to feed a big portion of the Filipino population. In fact, if not for these, we would be self-sufficient in rice. We don’t have to import the cereal and we may also be able to export it. That was what the UP scientists were trying to do in the small experimental farm in Los Baños that was destroyed by the Greenpeace-led Filipino farmers.

Greenpeace is afraid that biotechnology-processed plant varieties may have harmful substances. But isn’t that precisely what the scientists are trying to find out?

The group is led by former UP president and UPLB chancellor Emil Q. Javier, a respected scientist and academician. The CA has directed both Greenpeace and the Filipino scientists to defend their respective positions. The public now eagerly awaits the result of the CA hearings.

It is expected that Filipinos will respect whatever decision the court hands down. However, Filipino farmers still wish that whatever decision is made, such would help them make their own choice as to what they want to plant in their farms. After all, who should decide what Filipino farmers plant in their farms? Shouldn’t it be the farmers themselves? Why should a foreign pressure group decide for them?

Farmers choose on the basis of what they can sell in the market at better prices. They also choose on the basis of what is safer for their health.

At present, without Bt Talong, Filipino farmers are left with only two choices: poor harvest using antiquated farming methods, or better harvest after much application of chemical pesticides. The latter tend to put greater burden on their pockets and higher risks to their health. If you want to know more about the harmful effects of pesticides, read “The Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson.

It would be good for our farmers to have a third choice: higher yields at lower costs and with less risk to their health.

The debate on biotechnology should have been left as an issue of science and technology rather than in a legal contest. Greenpeace should have argued its case before Filipino farmers rather than before the courts. After all, it would be our farmers who will decide what to plant.

Why did Greenpeace opt for legal confrontation? Is it afraid of our Filipino scientists? Was it afraid that its contentions against biotechnology can easily be demolished by scientific proof and by the credibility of Filipino scientists?

The legal route appears to be a clever move by Greenpeace. What it cannot win in the court of public opinion it wants to win in a court of law.

Our interest is not in the legal grounds on which the efforts of our scientists stand. Neither are we hot on this pesticide-free eggplant variety. Eggplants have more uric acid content than other vegetable varieties. Too much uric acid in the body can give you gout, a very painful disease of the feet. But biotechnology may be able to produce an eggplant variety with less uric acid. We will wait for the others that are in the pipeline of the UPLB science community.

What we are interested in is freedom of choice, to which our farmers are entitled. This is no different from freedom of choice when it comes to issues of sexual reproduction. The job of government is to expand our options, to make new and better choices available.

The job of choosing which options are best for us should be left to us.

As for the safety of GMO foods, I will let the Food and Drug Administration, the government agency responsible for the safety of our food and drugs, speak:

“It can be said that food safety assessment for biotechnology products is more rigorous than for other crops produced by conventional breeding or other technologies. For the GMO food crops that have undergone food safety assessment and approval process, the consensus of scientific opinion and evidence is that the application of GM technology introduces no unique food safety concerns and up to this time there is no single case of evidence of harm to man. This conclusion has been reached by numerous national and international organizations.

“Regulatory systems are in place to assure the safety of these products… It takes around 10 to 14 years of laboratory research, contained greenhouse, contained small scale field trials, and pre-commercial testing and evaluation before a GM crop is approved for commercial release.”

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