• US expert defends biotech crops safety record


    Despite repeated attacks on the field trials of genetically modified or biotech crops, a US-based biotech expert has called on plant breeders and experts to continue testing and developing GM crops, which will benefit small Filipino farmers.

    During his lecture at the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca) in Los Baños, Laguna, Dr. Wayne Parrott of the University of Georgia said that GM crops are here to stay since “they are part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

    Parrott also debunked misinformation campaigns against GM crops, which have been floated around in the Philippines, even as “problems some people feared never appeared.”

    “Simply put, no negative claim has ever been confirmed,” he said.

    The expert asserted that GM crops are as safe as conventional varieties, and explained that extensive testing on these crops had been done all over the world, making them the most tested food in world history.

    Parrott’s lecture came as the Court of Appeals stood pat on banning the field testing of the Bacillus thurin-giensis (Bt) egg-plant at the Insti-tute of Plant Breeding (IPB) of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), a decision that Greenpeace hailed.

    Parrott, who has worked for a number of years in Latin-American countries, said that transgenics had been used by humanity for such beneficial products as vitamins, vaccines, insulin, wine and cheese, and noted that small-holder farmers are the ones who stand to gain more from GM crops.

    For this reason, Parrott said that 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries have cultivated 175 million hectares for biotech crops compared to about 25 million hectares devoted exclusively to organic crops.

    Strict PH framework
    He also noted that the regulatory framework for GM crops in the Philippines is stricter than the ones in force in other countries, since what it requires is that the biotech crops should pass the test for animal feed and human consumption.

    “Environmental safety also ensures that the crops will not pose risks unique to GM organisms and that there will be no new risks to wildlife. Moreover, there should be no gene flow that could cause problems,” Parrott stressed.

    The development of GMOs is regional in nature, he added, and the progress of the work is done “case by case, gene by gene, and crop by crop.”

    Parrott said that food produced through genetic engineering (GE) must be at least as safe as their conventional counterparts, and pointed out that this principle is in fact global in nature.

    Moreover, more than 600 articles on GM crop safety have been written and these articles can be accessed through the Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas (Genera), ChileBio and GMO Pundit.

    On GM crops with herbicide tolerance, Parrott said the no-till system for corn can be used, thus protecting the soil from erosion and saving fuel in the process, as what small farmers in Hondu- ras experienced.

    Bt crops, on the other hand, resist the cotton bollworm, the corn borer, armyworms and earworms, rootworms and other pests, as what Parrott found out in Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil.

    While the Court of Appeals stopped the tests on Bt eggplant here, Parrott said that Bangladesh may release a Bt eggplant resistant to fruit borer in December, thereby beating the Philippines.

    Ironically, the Philippines was the first to commercialize Bt corn in 2002, with the total area devoted to the biotech crop now reaching 750,000 hectares.

    Even before commercialization, tests have to be undertaken to ensure that there will be no unintended effects, Parrott pointed out, and the internationalization of biotech crops have to contend with such strict agencies as the European Food Safety Authority, US Food and Drug Admin-istration, Japan Food Safety Commission, Korea Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, Food Standards Australia New Zealand and China’s Ministry of Agriculture.

    Reviewing the records of GMOs from 1996 to 2011, Parrott said that Filipino Bt corn farmers had 18-percent yield increases due to the pest resistance of the variety they planted, a little less than the 20-percent documented in Colombia.

    Additional earnings
    Parrott said that based on the assessment of Graham Brooks and Peter Barfoot on the impact of biotech crops, farmers earned $19.8 billion in additional income in 2011, which is $5.4 billion from increased seed costs and $14.4 billion in profit.

    Biotech crops distribution is now 51 percent in developing countries and 49 percent in industrialized nations, with cotton farmers earning an extra $202 per hectare and
    Latin-American farmers gaining $5.05 for every $1 invested.

    Five GM crops—moth-resistant potato, pest-resistant banana, pod-borer resistant cowpea, cassava resistant to mosaic virus and water-efficient corn—are not yet available in the market.

    The disease-resistant banana being developed in Nigeria is a transgenic from East African varieties that has been fortified with two genes from sweet pepper to resist the disease that have decimated banana plantations in the country.

    On the other hand, the water-efficient corn for Africa is insect-resistant and designed to grow under moderate drought conditions. Tests have shown that it would have a yield that is between 20 percent and 35 percent better than conventional strains.

    James Konstantin Galvez


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