Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño said agriculture agencies and government-ran agricultural schools are mandated by the law to promote organic farming. So why are they promoting genetically modified crops like Bt eggplant?
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA – Government agencies and institutions that are supposed to promote organic agriculture in the Philippines are violating the law because these, too, are proponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño said this week.
Casiño said Congress should investigate the involvement of these agencies and institutions in promoting GMOs, which critics deem harmful to humans and the environment.
“Congress, through its Committee on Agriculture and Food, has to look into the cases of testing and releasing genetically modified organism (GMO) crops into the Philippine environment,” Casiño said.
He expressed incredulity that the proponents of Bt eggplant in the Philippines, particularly the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Plant Industry and the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) and other state colleges and universities, are the same entities tasked to spearhead organic agriculture in the Philippines.
Bt eggplants. (Photo from whybiotech.com)
“Field tests on Bt eggplant runs counter to organic agriculture law and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a protocol to which we are a signatory,” Casiño said. “By allowing the field tests and even by merely planning to sell Bt eggplant in the market, these agencies are breaking the law and, much worse, they are putting public health at risk.”
Among the schools that participated in recent field tests of Bt eggplant is the University of the Philippines- Mindanao, which was forced to uproot and destroy the crops after the local government issued a cease and desist order in December.
Republic Act 10068 or the Organic Agriculture Act was signed into law on April 6, 2010. The main premise of this law was that the government should promote, propagate, develop and implement the practice of organic agriculture in the country.
Casiño said the National Biosafety Framework of the Philippines and the Local Government Code of 1991 were also ignored when it came to government decisions relating to Bt eggplant.
Article 2 of the Cartagena Protocol states that the “development, handling, transport, use, transfer and release of any living modified organisms are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risk to biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.”
An anti-GMO poster from Bayan Muna.
Organic Food Festival
Last week, party-list groups Bayan Muna and Anakpawis party-lists opened the Organic Food Festival at the House of Representatives to showcase sustainable agriculture produce such as organic red rice, organic lettuce and organic basi wine.
There were also organic plants in lightweight pots, such as aloe vera, spinach, oregano, tarragon, and lemon grass. Bunches of organic pechay were also sold, as well as tomatoes, chili, and bottles of organic honey. The produce were sold in booths sponsored by various people’s organizations and sponsors.
The festival also featured a forum on safe and sustainable food, and planting techniques which organizers said can help the country attain food self-sufficiency and bio-safety. There was also a lecture on urban farming and organic agriculture.
Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño emphasized the need for organic farming.
The activity was also co-sponsored by Resistance and Solidarity against Agrochem TNCs (Resist), Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa pag-unlad ng agrikultura (Masipag), Sibat, TFIP, Philippine Network of Food Security Programmes, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and Searice.
Casiño said that they held the event to popularize their advocacy on food security and biosafety issues among other legislators as well as employees in congress. He said there is a serious need to look into the government’s programs when it came to attaining food security while keeping tabs on bio-safety that involves public health and has impact on the environmental.
In the last decade, progressive farmer organizations led by KMP and scientist groups have been campaigning against the commercialization of GMOs — hybrid rice, BB Rice, Bt Corn, hybrid papaya and other genetically altered produce because of serious health and environment concerns.
In September last year, Bayan Muna launched what it called an all-out war against the Bt eggplant, a genetically engineered eggplant that is allegedly resistant to a local pest, the Fruit and Shoot Borer.
Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is a toxin-producing germ which, when embedded into the eggplant, makes it resistant to the insect. The Bt eggplant is a GMO designed to produce an insecticide that is present in the whole plant and concentrated in the eggplant itself. Bt eggplant was introduced for field testing in the Philippines by Maharastra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco) in a few areas, but this 2011, it’s being introduced to the commercial market.
Mahyco is affiliated with Monsanto, the same US-based biotech company that introduced Bt corn in the country and is foremost proponent of GMO.
Casiño said the Department of Agriculture should not have allowed Bt eggplant field trials in different sites across the country in the drive to commercialize it this year. Through the DA, the Bureau of Plant Industry has been given the go signal to conduct Bt eggplant field trials in Sta. Maria, Pangasinan; Bae, Laguna; Pili, Camarines Sur; Baybay, Leyte; Sta. Barbara, Iloilo; UP Mindanao, Davao City; and Kabacan, North Cotabato.
Casino said that it was good that residents and local governments were putting up a fight against the field trials. “We support the LGUs of Sta. Barbara, Iloilo and Davao City in their opposition to the ongoing field test trials in their area. They are all against the planting of Bt Eggplant in their areas,” he said.
Casiño has already filed House Resolution 237 which directs the Committee on Agriculture and Food to investigate the current field trials as it violates the laws on organic farming as well as regulations on environmental safety.
An anti-Monsanto crop circle in Mindanao. The bio-tech company has been accused of propagating GMOs and of using force and intimidation to corner its market. (Photo by Melvyn Calderon / Greenpeace)
“It is high time that Congress look into this issue to come up with better government policies on bio-safety that will help us attain long-term safe and sustainable food for the people,” Casiño said.
Organic agriculture versus GMOs
Organic farming is said to help condition and enrich soil fertility, increase farm productivity, reduce pollution and destruction of the environment, prevent the depletion of natural resources, further protect the health of farmers, consumers and the general public, and save on imported farm inputs.
A specific section of the law, Section 3(b), defines organic agriculture as including all agricultural systems that promote the ecologically sound, socially acceptable, economically viable and technically feasible production of food and fibers.
While it also includes the use of biotechnology and other agricultural practices, it was explicitly stated t that biotechnology does not include GMOs.
According to research of anti-GMO groups, Bt genes could cause cancer and tumors once ingested into the human body.
The group Masipag said there should be an immediate stop to the field trials as these may pose irreversible damage to the surrounding native crops and potential health hazards to the communities.
“Even now we have yet to receive reports if the said crop would be safe to eat and would offer no harmful effects to the environment. If there are no safety data, it is imperative that the field tests be stopped to protect the surrounding communities from the potential hazards of GMOs, Bt eggplant in particular,” it said.
Unfortunately, as a counter-effort to the proliferation of GMOs, organic farming has yet to fully take off in the Philippines. Advocates find it ironic because prior to the arrival of foreign transnational and multinational corporations (TNCs and MNCs) during the American occupation in the 1940s, agriculture in the Philippines was purely organic.
Workers prepare to uproot Bt eggplant at the University of the Philippines-Mindanao after Davao City mayor Sara Duterte stopped the field tests. (Photo from upmin.edu.ph)
“Philippine agriculture is heavily dependent on these TNCs and MNC, and many of them are pesticide manufacturers,” said Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano. He added that the effects of pesticide use on the environment also had tremendous impact on the small farmers.
“Before the widespread application of agrochemicals, their rice farms also provided them with fish, snails and other viands for free. It’s the TNCs in agriculture and the full support the government gives them that makes it very hard for farmers to return to organic farming.”
According to Mariano, nine out of 13 big pesticide companies in the country are foreign firms, including Monsanto, Dow, Novartis, Aventis and Bayer. They control 85 percent of the market. Even the few Filipino pesticide companies have to import almost all materials.
Organic farming against climate change
Organic farming does not use any synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This does not put pressure on the soil and the environment at large. The process makes extensive use of natural fertilizers like manure and bio-fertilizers composed of helpful microorganisms which are capable of providing nutrients to the plants.
In the meantime, proponents and consumers of organic food testify that organic food is tastier and more nutritious than conventional food. They cite various experiments that have reportedly confirmed that organic foods have more amounts of vitamin C and minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron than their conventional counterparts. Organic foods are also rich in phenolic compounds and other antioxidants which play a protective role in heart diseases and cancers.
“So not only eating is planting organic food good for the environment, it’s also good for you,” said Casiño.
Finally, the festival organizers said that the call to switch to organic farming has become more urgent in the face of climate change as the Philippines is considered a vulnerable spot for the phenomenon’s effects, which include massive flooding, sea-level rise and drought.
Experts from Masipag and TNC Resist said that organic agriculture production systems are less prone to extreme weather conditions. It increases the soil’s organic matter content and improves water holding capacity and makes crops more resistant to drought.
Organic farming also contributes to the fight against climate change as it reduces carbon emissions from farming system inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, methane, CO2, and CO emissions in lowland rice paddies because of effective water management. (http://bulatlat.com)