• Searca seeks stronger law on biotech crops

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    The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca) has called for a stronger policy on the use of biotechnology crops in the Philippines as vital to the country’s long-term food security amid climate change and a rapidly growing population.

    Congress should immediately craft a biotechnology law, which is forcible than a memorandum circular or administrative order to anchor the country’s policies to end hunger, Searca Director Gil Saguiguit Jr. said in a statement.

    “Searca has BIC or Biotechnology Information Center, which is a one-stop shop for biotechnology advocacy. We are in a position to support (the biotechnology law). We will capitalize on Searca’s strength in policy research to address the problem,” Saguiguit said.

    He cited Searca’s crucial role in policies that affect food production and the environment including a program of Senator Cynthia Villar, who heads the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, which encompasses the Small Farmers Irrigation Act and agriculture insurance program to help farmers against climate change’s adverse effects.

    Searca and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (Isaaa) host the BIC in Los Baños, Laguna.

    Bt eggplant

    Bureau of Plant Industry Director Dr. Vivencio Mamaril said several party-list lawmakers support will support any legislation that will be filed to enhance the use of biotechnology crops like the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) eggplant and “gene-silenced” non-browning potato.

    Bt eggplant, a genetically modified variety that resists pest fruit and shoot borer, increases farmers’ income by P50,000 per hectare than non-Bt eggplant.

    Crop yields increase by 50 percent from disease resistance and from savings from non-use of pesticide 60 to 80 times during an eggplant’s 120-day season. Eggplant yield ranges from 15 to 30 metric tons per hectare, depending on variety, location and disease management.

    Mamaril said BPI is now evaluating the results of Bt eggplant field trials before approving commercial propagation and distribution.

    ‘Gene silencing’

    A forceful law is pertinent to a long-term food security strategy in light of new plant breeding techniques or NBTs that have accelerated breeding of superior food crops some of which are already marketed overseas, Mamaril said.

    However, there are concerns about regulations on safe release to the environment and as food for consumers.
    Part of NBTs is the so-called “genome editing,” a type of genetic engineering where DNA is either inserted, deleted or replaced using “engineered nucleases.”

    Non-browning potato or non-browning apple are examples of crops with “silenced genes.” The expression of the gene that determines the browning of a potato or an apple is eliminated or reduced.

    NBTs also reduce food waste since the non-browning effect reduces spoilage, thus benefitting consumers.
    Mamaril said the government should now come up with regulation, adding that policies must be flexible to regulate new plant breeding techniques.

    Bt corn
    Mamaril said Bt corn has enormously benefitted Filipino farmers and the Philippine economy. Bt corn farms reached 812,000 hectares in 2016. It will eventually make Philippines a corn exporter.

    “Congressmen said we should submit the bill. Food safety is what concerns them more. The Philippines now has more than 800,000 hectares of corn planted to herbicide tolerant corn. We started with only 50,000 hectares in 2002. You can’t argue with success,” he said.

    A more permanent legislation should be established to replace the Joint Department Circular (JDC) issued in the first half of last year by five government agencies sanctioning research, management and movement of biotechnology crops.

    “Congress is much interested in it. We also want to deal on issues on flexibility because the regulation today may not be able to cover needed regulation in five years,” Mamaril said.

    Last year, a JDC authorizing biotechnology crops production was issued by the Department of Agriculture (DAO, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Health, Department of Interior and Local Government, and Department of Science and Technology.

    The JDC provides for strict safety regulations on commercialization of biotechnology crops. It superseded DA’s Administrative Order No. 8 (AO 8) issued in 2002 as the governing policy on biotechnology crops but was nullified by the Supreme Court in December 2015 on grounds that the order failed to put adequate safety standards set by Executive Order 514 that established the National Biosafety Framework.

    Capable of doubling food production amid a projected burgeoning of global population reaching 9 billion by 2050, biotechnology crops are a more lasting solution to food hunger problems, said Dr. Paul S. Teng, Isaaa chairman.

    “In less than two years, maybe that’s the best time that we can expect new biotechnology crops to be released,” Mamaril said.

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