Dismay was the major reaction among the media personalities at the recent Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel. The session featured Edwin Feist, president of the Pharmaceutical Health Care Association of the Philippines who spoke on the many health threats posed by pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics and even genetically modified plants.
“What are we going to eat now?” Everyone wanted to know, as Feist detailed the many ways food producers are tweaking the way food is grown and the potential health and developmental effects on consumers, especially babies and children.
The young are especially vulnerable, said Feist, because their metabolism is not yet fully developed and they could develop anything from allergies to autism, ADHD and even declines in IQ. Certainly, potentially harmful chemicals and organisms can be found in many food sources, from commercially grown poultry, cattle, fruits, grains and vegetables soaked in pesticides. But while adults have developed the systems to metabolize much of these harmful elements, babies and young children are not as protected. Especially since in the first, crucial years of their life, they are almost entirely dependent on a single source of nourishment: milk.
Breastfed children do get immunity from their mothers, as well as the richest source of nourishment. But babies who are bottle-fed are dependent on cow’s milk which may be sourced from cows pumped full of hormones and fed on grains sprayed with pesticides and herbicides and who knows how many more chemicals.
“Organic food” has thus become a holy grail not just of scientists and doctors, but especially of parents seeking to rear healthy children. Good news then are plans to bring in from Europe organic milk that, so promotional materials claim, “come from cows that are cared for, using completely natural methods, graze on pesticide-free grass, and consume a diet that is 100-percent free from growth hormones and antibiotics.”
Locally, says Feist, it is still difficult to obtain certification that a certain food is “organic” since there are scant safeguards against contamination. But he urges consumers to look for the “seal” of the OCCP or Organic Certification Center of the Philippines for peace of mind.
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How ironic, too, that powdered infant formula has become, so a source says, “the most shop-lifted item” in groceries and supermarkets. Increasingly expensive, and yet crucial to the diet of bottle-fed babies, infant formula is being sneaked out of grocery aisles by desperate parents and relatives. So much so that in some establishments infant formula are kept under lock and key.
The obvious solution, for the desperate adults in the babies’ lives, is to adopt breastfeeding as early as possible and for as long as feasible. But what is happening, according to anecdotal evidence but borne out by high malnutrition and stunting rates, is that parents are driven to give their babies inappropriate, un-nutritious if not outright dangerous alternatives like evaporated or watered-down condensed milk, rice washing water, or even soda.
The need, then, is to work on public awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding, which provides precious “bonding” time between parent and child aside from the obvious, scientifically proven health benefits.
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Also a threat to the health and lives of everyone are GMOs or genetically modified organisms, foods and plants whose genetic make-up are altered permanently for a number of purposes.
Among these are: to make crops resistant to pests and disease; to enhance certain qualities like taste, texture or color; or to make them more nutritious or longer-lasting after harvest.
Certainly, these are worthy aims. But according to Von Hernandez, executive director, and Daniel Ocampo, sustainable agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, the GMOs’ full impact on the environment, on plants and livestock, and on consumers is still largely unknown. To allow field tests and even the marketing of GMO products is thus too risky.
Recently, the Court of Appeals ruled that proponents of a GMO product—Bt talong or eggplant—should “permanently cease and desist from field testing” the altered plant, and ordered to “rehabilitate, protect, preserve and restore the environment.”
Based on a case filed by the local arm of Greenpeace, the Masipag farmers’ collective and other groups, the Court of Appeals found that “there is no scientific consensus on the safety and impacts to health and environment of Bt talong hence the precautionary principle is applicable.” The court also found that since there is as yet no “mother law” governing GMOs, “existing biosafety regulations are insufficient and ineffective to protect… the rights of Filipinos to health…”
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While the ruling was a decisive victory for the anti-GMO camp, Hernandez says it triggered a wave of negative commentary and coverage, aimed largely at Greenpeace. Much of the views expressed outrage at why a “foreign” group has been meddling in local agricultural policies, overlooking the fact that Greenpeace has its own local organization, and that those pushing for the testing and marketing of GMOs here are supported or funded by multinationals.
Ocampo points to an emerging threat, that of “Golden Rice,” now undergoing tests and powered by millions of dollars in funds and grants. The purported goal is to engineer rice to incorporate beta-carotene to prevent Vitamin A deficiency, but Greenpeace says it is a threat to local food security as it could contaminate traditional rice varieties. Says Greenpeace: “Spending more time and money on golden rice development is not only environmentally irresponsible, it is also a disservice to humanity.”