Global adoption of biotech crops is skyrocketing. From 1.7 M ha in 1996, production area has increased to 181.5 M ha in 2014—more than a hundred fold increase, thus making biotech one of the fastest adopted crop technologies worldwide.
In the Philippines, adoption of biotech crops has also been increasing. From less than 50,000 ha in 2003, GM corn area has reached 800,000 ha in 2014, ranking the Philippines 12th among the 19 “biotech mega countries” (i.e., countries with 50,000 ha or more planted with biotech crops).
Indeed, biotech crops have proven their worth. Almost 400,000 small-landholding Filipino farmers have already benefitted from biotech corn farming in the country. Klumper & Qaim (2014) noted that 147 studies worldwide confirmed that biotech crops benefitted farmers with a 22% increase in yield; a 37% decrease in pesticide use; and a 68% increase in profit. The study also revealed that profit gains were higher in developing countries than in industrial countries. Global health authorities, scientific experts, and government organizations agree to its safety.
Let the people choose
Yet, despite the overwhelming adoption of biotech crops, there are still some sectors that condemn their usage. Some are even banning the entry of genetically modified (GM) crops in the countryside. There are provinces in the Philippines that have successfully implemented the organic law, which in effect restricts the presence of GM crops. Academician Dr. Emil Javier in his article titled, Let the farmers decide, noted that “these moves are misdirected, constitute an over-reach of local autonomy, and unwittingly anti-poor.” Prohibitions on the use of chemical fertilizers and growing of GMOs are not based on science, he added. Meanwhile, organic farming unwittingly becomes anti-poor and anti-environment for the mere reasons that lower yields with high production costs prompt farmers to sell their organic produce at a premium price. This leads to higher food prices, making more Filipinos food insecure, while the expansion of organic farming for more yields result in plowing more grasslands and cutting down of more forests.
Farmers and consumers should be given a choice. As Dr. Javier noted, organic farming and conventional farming are competing, alternative business models, which farmers should freely choose depending on their capacity and respective preferences. He concluded that local government prescribing the practice of certain methods and, in effect, restricting the choice of farmers is not right.
Coexistence is the answer
It is unfortunate that organic and biotech crops are perceived as each other’s enemy, when in fact these two crops could coexist. Dr. Pesach Lubinsky, a science advisor in the biotechnology trade policy office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, discussed how coexistence is possible, in a seminar on coexistence on September 22 at IRRI in Los Baños, Laguna.
Coexistence, as defined in a report of the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), is the concurrent cultivation of conventional, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered crops consistent with underlying consumer preferences and farmer choices. In other words, it is the existence of different types of production at the same time and in the same area. Sharing their experiences, Lubinsky noted that coexistence in the US refers to cultivation of crops that are lawful to grow. It is a “marketing issue” not a “regulatory issue”. In the process, the government serves as a support system by helping to address causes of discord in farming communities and providing economic opportunities for all farmers.
Coexistence is important in giving farmers’ freedom to plant what they want to plant. Its higher aim is to boost agricultural production. “Saying yes to coexistence, means saying yes to more agricultural tools to address the pressing challenges of food security and sustainability”, Lubinsky emphasized.
In the Philippine setting, Lubinsky advised that to achieve coexistence, stakeholders should be gathered together to discuss more deeply the issues and concerns similar to what they did in the US. They formed an advisory committee with representatives from different sectors – biotechnology industry, organic food industry, farming communities, seed industry, food manufacturers, state government, consumer and community development groups, medical professionals, and academic researchers. Working in partnership with these stakeholders enabled them to respond creatively, adapt to changes in the market, and develop solutions that meet farmer, consumer, and broader industry needs. Lubinsky concluded that “coexistence would only be possible if everyone supports it”.
The seminar on coexistence was attended by students, academicians, media, researchers and practitioners from various scientific organizations. It was organized by BCP and USDA in partnership with PhilRice, IRRI, ISAAA, SEARCA-BIC, UPLB, and UPLABS.