THE heavily-maligned Genetically Modified (GM) crop, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, is actually mainstreamed now with corn growers using this in scales bigger than any other corn variety.
Having corn as the second to the most important crop in the country next to rice, Philippines pioneered the planting of Bt corn in Asia. The crop’s commercial propagation was allowed in late December 2002.
Since then, the area planted to biotech maize in the country has reached a total of 702,000 hectares (has) involving over 400,000 farming families.
The total area devoted to Bt corn is some 70 percent of the total harvest corn area in the country at 1.04 million hectares in 2015, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority (PSA).
“Adoption rate of biotech maize in 2015 is at 63 percent. In the period 2003 to 2015, there were 13 years of consecutive growth in hectarage of Bt corn, except for 2015 due to drought,” Dr. Randy A. Hautea, global coordinator and Southeast Asia director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (Isaaa), said during the recently-concluded three-day training-writeshop on Engaging Regional media for science-based reporting on Modern Agricultural Technologies last July 27 at University of the Philippines Los Baños-Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca) Residences.
Highest hectarage of Bt corn recorded is at 831,000 hectares in 2014.
He added that the year-by-year upward trajectory in adoption of biotech maize “reflects the significant and consistent benefits generated by biotech maize to farmers here.”
“About 65 percent of the total yellow corn of the country is actually GM, the 350,000 to 400,000 farming families are now directly dependent on GM corn production,” he said.
The corn producing areas in the country are Isabela, the rest of Cagayan Valley, South and North Cotabato, Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat, among others. Davao City is also producing corn but only minimal.
On an average, one farming family has a corn holding of two to two and a half hectares.
Bt corn in the Philippines was engineered to be specifically resistant to the Asiatic Corn Borer (ACB), Ostrinia furnacalis (Guenee), the most devastating corn pests in the industry.
It was introduced as a “practical and ecologically sustainable solution” for poor corn farmers, a major bullet to combat poverty and improve livelihood.
Hautea said that application of insecticide to corn can control but not effective and 100 percent guaranteed.
“The only control, which is not that effective, is the application of heavy pesticide and that is not 100 percent effective because if the borer entered the corn plant’s surface, it can’t be reached by the insecticide but a Bt corn protects the plant itself,” he said.
Better yield and income
In a research entitled "Adoption and uptake pathways of Biotech crops commissioned by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA)," Dr. Cleofe S. Torres of the UPLB-College of Development Communication said that farmers' income tripled with Bt corn as compared to traditional corn.
The study has over 400 respondents from across the country.
Higher income leads the top reasons and considered facilitating factors for continued adoption of GM crop, followed by pest resistance, good grain quality, available financing, lesser production cost, and availability of seeds.
“We went to the communities where 95 percent are corn farmers. Generally the findings tell us that indeed the farmers benefited in terms of income. Their income actually tripled and they are now not in debt to anybody because they can readily pay immediately after harvest,” she said in a separate interview.
For instance, Torres cited that one farmer who is earning just P10,000 per hectare per harvest with the non-GM corn, now they are having an income of P30,000 per hectare per harvest.
One farming family, on an average has 2.5 hectares of corn field. In a year, corn farmers are harvesting twice or thrice a year.
Hautea, for his part, said that the high retention rate of farmers growing Bt corn is a clear and best measure of acceptability of the Filipino farmers.
In the same research, it was noted that problems encountered by biotech corn farmers include the occurrence of fungal/bacterial diseases and other pests (31.8 percent); expired seeds that did not germinate (19.8 percent); high cost of inputs (16.1 percent); low buying price of traders (8.1 percent); and lack of own capital (6.8 percent).
Biotechnology is but the road toward food and nutrition security, said Hautea, emphasizing that biotechnology can be the door in achieving the Department of Agriculture’s (DA’s) target of making food available and affordable to the Filipinos.
“Biotechnology can be part of the solution, it can contribute,” he said.
Proving his assertion, Hautea cited the commercialization of the Bt corn in the Philippines which he said, has paved way for the conversion of the then corn import-dependent to a corn export-oriented country.
“To date, we are not importing corn for the past two years,” he said, adding that the country managed to be self-sufficient in corn.
But he was clear that Biotech, just like any technology, will not be a sole technology savior.
Department of Agriculture (DA) secretary, Emmanuel Piñol, when asked in a separate interview about his direction as far as biotechnology is concerned, was quick to say that he is open to any development with GM for as long as same vision will be shared.
“No problem. We meet with anybody. I am open to talk to biotechnology,” Piñol said.
But he underscored that he is not that keen about this, as he has yet to learn and deeply understand Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), as he believes organic farming is still the way.
“I am not keen, I don’t know, as of the moment, let it come but you know ignorante pa ako sa GMO (I am still ignorant about GMO),” he said.
Hautea also said that biotechnology has to be used where it is advantageous.
“You really have to use it where it is advantageous like the Bt corn, that is the only controlled method for the corn borer except insecticide. So you have to use it to the best agronomy, cultural, soil, water management and best market matching,” he said.
“With the rallying mandate of the President (Rodrigo Duterte) which is to provide available and affordable food to every Filipinos, so anything that can contribute in achieving this, I think that is how we should put the role of biotechnology or any technology like irrigation, soil analysis, organic, etc,” Hautea added.