Special report: Bt corn opening potentials for corn export

CITY OF SAN FERNANDO — It will not be long before the Philippines will be able to position itself as among the leading exporters of corn in Southeast Asia as the corn industry has finally achieved sufficiency and surplus in its production in previous cropping seasons.

This possibility is a far cry from the previous status of corn production in country in the past one and half decade ago where farmers suffered from perennial setbacks caused by infestation and poor yield with corn production unable to sustain local demands.

And if we are to believe Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel “Manny” Piñol, the country will be exporting corn this year to its Asian neighbors like Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan for both industrial and food consumption use.

Taiwan, for one, uses corn primarily as component for poultry and livestock feeds while Malaysia needs Malaysian 2.5 million metric tons of corn annually to sustain its local market needs.

It is no secret that the genetically modified (GM) crop Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn has contributed a great deal to the country’s recent remarkable corn production. The effects of good corn yield has an enormous effect in country were 12 million people consider corn as their staple food.

Second only to rice, corn is among the most important crops in the country having both commercial and industrial use. Its production alone is a major industry for the country’s agricultural sector and its allied industries that depend on the production and distribution of corn and its other by-products.

How big is it

The Department of Agriculture (DA) estimates the corn production for 2017 to hit 8.1-million metric tons (MT). This, the DA said, is an obvious surplus production as the country’s domestic requirement is only at 5.6-million MT.

The DA, the Bureau of Plant Industry and the DA-Biotechnology Program Office had declared the country as corn self-sufficient since 2012. The National Corn Competitiveness Board reported that “biotech corn has contributed to feedstock-supply security and helped in food self-sufficiency.”

Exporting corn produce is a strong possibility since the country is set to register a record of 120 percent corn sufficiency this year. This projection may even break the 200 percent sufficiency requirement of the government before any agricultural produce is used for export.

Corn silage from the Philippines has already been exported to South Korea since 2013. Corn silage is composed of corn and its stalk that are fermented into high-moisture feed. Corn silage is forage for ruminant animals because it is high in energy and digestibility and the corn silage from the Philippines was particularly noted for its quality.

Bt corn accounts for so much of the industry production since 65 percent of all yellow corn produced in the country is in fact Bt corn. In 2015 alone, some 1.04 million hectares was devoted to Bt corn production. In recent years, there has been a tremendous shift to Bt corn production.

The data from Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application (ISAAA) showed that 812,000 hectares was used for Bt corn production in 2016 and 702,000 hectares were 2015 as well as 831,000 in 2014. An average of two-digit increase in lands devoted to Bt corn have been recorded in the past five years.

Since Bt corns commercialization in 2003 to 2015, the Bt corn sector has generated some $642 million.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), in its Rice and Corn Situation and Outlook for 2017, said that corn output in April - June 2017 at 1.33 million MT was 45.97 percent higher than the 0.91 million MT record in 2016. Harvest area rose to 402 thousand hectares or by 47.97 percent from the 2016 level of 271 thousand hectares.

The January to December 2017 probable corn production and harvest area may increase by 11.08 percent and 4.07 percent from their respective levels in 2016. Yield may rise from 2.91 MT per hectare to 3.10 MT, or by 6.74 percent

Corn is used for a variety of industries and line products stretching from poultry, cosmetics, food and even additives for animal feeds.

What is Bt corn

Farmer Ricardo Valencia said that he has been planting rice and corn for as long as he could remember. He remembers a time when corn was a difficult crop to grow due to pests.

“Back then, it was usual to sell corn with fungal defects. Now all corns in the market, particularly yellow corn are almost devoid of defects,” Valencia said.

His farm in Porac town, which was once a sugarcane farm, is now used to plant highland crops like cassava as well as corn.

“There is more revenue in yellow corn production,” he said adding that corn revenue is even higher than sugarcane in the long run. But Valencia said that some farmers still do not understand Bt corn production.

Biotech corn is a product of biotechnology. Biotechnology involves the use of living organisms or their parts to make or modify a product, or improve plants, animals and micro-organisms.

The DA’s briefer on Bt corn said that the GM crop carries a transplanted gene from Bacillus thuringensis (Bt), a common soil bacterium, that produces a protein which when eaten by the corn borer makes the insect sick and eventually die.

Before the introduction of Bt crop, corn was a problematic crop to grow during the dry months. This is because of the Asian Corn Borer that is endemic to the Philippines and preys on crops like corn to devastating effect.

Corn farms afflicted by Asiatic Corn Borer (ACB) and Ostrinia furnacalis (Guenee) could hardly come up with efficient yield. Farmers had to use harmful insecticides and pest control chemicals that had and impact on their health and the environment.

Fortunately Bt corn in the Philippines is highly resistant to Asiatic Corn Borer and Ostrinia furnacalis.

The DA said that since the introduction of Bt corn, based on impact studies, corn farmers no longer need to apply chemicals to control the corn borer; thus, their pesticide inputs were reduced by 60 percent.

“Farmers have been enjoying higher yields, low production cost, better quality of corn which translates to higher income, and safe environmental impact,” the DA added.

Difficult beginnings

The commercialization of Bt corn for local agriculture started in December 2002 but farmers only started cultivating it in 2003. But actual tests on the viability and impact of Bt corn in the country started way before that in 1996.

The agriculture leaders then took to the success of the Bt corn in North America and began exploring the probable application of Bt corn in the country.

Back then, the multi-sectoral group led by the University of the Philippines Los Baños and the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), the country's crop biotechnology research and breeding for all improved crops, led the first tests in 1996.

This was followed by the green house trials by the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) in August of 1996. By 1998, limited field research trials were conducted in actual farms.

Despite the tests, the Bt corn was met with much opposition with the sectors who opposed GM crops. But the opposition on Bt corn eventually died down when farmers, through orientations and actual testing of the crop proved the viability of the Bt corn in Philippine agriculture.

The DA’s briefer on Bt corn said that “farmers have been enjoying higher yields, low production cost, better quality of corn which translates to higher income, and safe environmental impact. The agriculture sector has also benefited substantially from the increased productivity of the corn industry.”

“The GM corn was the first and so far the only modern biotechnology product approved in the country for commercial production intended for livestock feed manufacturing. This was after undergoing the science-based biosafety system in the Philippines, which has become a model regulatory system among developing countries,” the DA added.

Opening possibilities

While Bt corn has gained ground in the Philippine agriculture industry, the Philippine Maize Federation Inc. (Philmaize) believes that more Bt corn varieties should be allowed in the country.

The Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) believes that the Bt corn can very well pave the way to the full export of Philippine corn to Asian markets with potential markets in South Korea. But the country should make its move before it is overtaken by Vietnam in the South Korean market for corn.

For farmers like Ricardo Valencia and those in the corn industry, leaders should already exploit the potentials of an export market for corn as well as strengthen the corn industry by allowing other Bt corn varieties that that pass the country’s biosafety standards.

The DA must also apply for the relaxation of the directive on the 200 percent sufficiency before allowing corn surplus for export. It is time, Valencia said, for the country to lead in the export of corn food and feed in Southeast Asia.

And while plans are being made, Valencia said that those who supported Bt corn have already made a difference in the country’s agriculture for the better.


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