COMMENTARY: Biotechnology: What is in there for us?

Thank you to the organizers of this forum for kindly inviting me to share my views on biotechnology especially on its effects on our country and people.

Even as I am no expert on the nature of biotechnology, or its effects on edible plants and consumable meats, I am thankful that I am given the opportunity to discuss the topic which, like it or not, affects the wellbeing of our country and people.

Bt corn

Some 15 years ago today, at the first conference in Manila of Bishops with Scientists on January 29, 2001, I was also given the privilege to speak, be it only on broad strokes, on the issue of Biotechnology, particularly as it related to Bt corn.

I told the forum, then, that as a layman and as a legislator, I had no preconceived notions as to whether or not GMOs, or more specifically Bt corn, were good or bad.

Emotionally charged-issue

What I knew, then, was that the issue of Bt corn experimental farms in some parts of the country had become so emotionally charged that some of our NGOs and farmers took the law into their own hands by raiding the farms and uprooting the corn crops that had been planted there by certain foreign corporations engaged in GMO experimentation.

The thing, however, is that even at that time, both the GMO experimental farms and the acts of those opposing them had repercussions for good or ill to our country.

Naturally, if the experimental farms would produce more, and cheaper – and safe – food for our people and for our farm animals, then, the experimentations would be good for us and should, therefore, be promoted.

If, on the other hand, the experimental farms would cause ill health to our people and to our animals or destroy the food farms of our farmers, then, the experiments would be bad for us and should be banned.

The other day, I made a fast research in the internet and found the following data:

Europe bans Bt crops

In Europe, “19 of the 28 members of the European Union, including Germany and France, have voted to prohibit farmers from cultivating biotech crops. Scotland independently also voted to ban GMO cultivation.” [Google]

Still, under 2015 EU regulations, “countries can opt out of GM consents on a case-by-case basis.”

Opting out

And last year, on October 5 2015, the DAILY NEWS in New York reported that:

“Countries seizing the opportunity to opt out (of the ban against GMOs) include Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Regions within member states have also joined the exodus, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the UK, and Wallonia in Belgium.”

“And Countries that are anti-GM continue to feed their animals GMOs … It’s ironic that the countries that voted against approval of GM crops still import large amounts of GM ingredients for their animals.”


And in Africa, “only Kenya has banned the importation of food containing GMOs.” xxx

“For the first time, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) recently approved open field trials of Bt maize xxx. This is the clearest signal that the country is moving forward with a scientific-based regulatory system. There are on-going confined field trials (CFTs) for maize, sorghum, cassava and other crops.”

[The data are also culled from ‘GMO Answers’]

Japan’s ambivalence

Closer to home, I made a quick search on Japan’s attitude towards GMOs.

It appears that a Japanese law bans the growing of any genetically modified seeds or crops in Japan. However, Japanese food manufacturers are actively importing “Roundup Ready” GMO canola grown in Canada primarily to manufacture canola oil.

If the report is true, it simply means that Japan has an ambivalent attitude towards GMOs.

How, then, should we treat GMOs or Bt corn specifically in our country?

I suggest that we leave the matter to our biotech scientists to determine whether or not GMOs or Bt corns are safe not only for animal, but, more specifically, for human consumption.

But, let us keep the issue alive by making the public aware that GMOs or Bt corns are now getting more positive treatment in many parts of the globe. And, at the very least, our national stand on the matter as to whether or not GMOs or Bt corns should be guided by scientific knowhow.

By now, scientific experiments, I understand, tend to show that GMOs, in general, are proven safe not only for “animal” but for human consumption as well.

And, if the matter is validated by our own science and technology department, duly assisted by proper research, there should no longer be any reluctance from our government institutions and our people to actively promote the production, sale and consumption of GMOs or Bt products.

For today, I understand that the results of GMOs, or the Bt corn experimentations, in general, show that those agricultural products are made resistant to ordinary plant diseases and they dispense with the more expensive and ill-health causing pesticides.

Moreover, the country is, thus, enabled to produce more food for human and animal consumption than ever before.

There are fears, however, that in the process of experimentation, poisons are spread to nearby corn farms that endanger the crops there directly or make them more dependent on pesticides or farm inputs than ever before. And, that the net effect of that negative aspect would be for us to import food from foreign producers.

These were legitimate concerns in the past. But, now, it seems that those apprehensions are being addressed in a scientific manner.

Filipino farmers’ positive experiences

We can cite the example of a lady farmer, Rosalie Eliazus, who had been using Bt corn seeds and had been harvesting bonanzas.

In her words, she planted Bt corn seeds in a hectare of her farmland that cost her something like P9,000. This amount was roughly P3500 more than what it would have cost her if she used non-Bt corn.

The fact, however, is that she also harvested much more by her use of Bt corn seeds, and in the process, it also relieved her of the need to use of pesticides by as much as 45 percent. And her harvests remained positively bountiful last year despite the drought that plagued the area where her farm land is located.

In brief, when she used Bt corn seeds, she harvested more than triple the usual yield of the same farm land area that she had been cultivating in the past.

Another recent report on a successful experiment on Bt corn comes from farmer Edwin Paraluman, chairman of the Philippine Farmers Advisory Board, in General Santos City. 

His emphasis is on the safety of Bt corn which, he said, he had been eating for the last 12 years. His experience, he says, is proof that BT corn is fit for human consumption. 

The conclusion now seems inevitable that the Bt is here to stay as it has proven its worth in enhancing the volume of the harvest of crops and in vastly increasing the income of the farmers using Bt seeds.

In other lands, Bt experiments are also producing more in terms of crop harvest volumes and in the process they deliver bigger sums of money to the Bt users.

Religion, no basis to ban Bt crops

Incidentally, I might mention that in the not too distant past, some religious contentions were raised against the use of Bt in the production of crops for the dietary needs of mankind.

Happily, in my view, the controversies were laid to rest sooner than latter, because the concerned Pontiffs of Rome in those times backed up by learned scientists put their reputations on the line to tell the world that Bt products are fit for human consumption and for the good of creatures inhabiting the earth.

Specific Pontiffs

In 1951, Pope Pius XII, himself, said in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Science that science bears “witness to the primordial Fiat Lux, let there be light.”

And 41 years later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II reiterated this theme of Pope Pius XII’s in a speech, entitled Faith Can Never Contradict Reason, that he made before the Pontifical Academy of Science.

He said that: “the Church, by virtue of her specific mission, is obliged to pay close attention to problems no longer related merely to astronomy, physics and mathematics, but also to relatively new disciplines such as biology and biogenetics. 

“Many recent scientific discoveries and their possible applications affect man more directly than ever before, his thought and action, to the point of seeming to threaten the very basis of what is human.”

The Bishop of Rome further said that:

“in a general way, xxx the pastor ought to show a genuine boldness, avoiding the double trap of a hesitant attitude and of hasty judgment, both of which can cause considerable harm.”

On that occasion, Pope John Paul II also rectified the condemnation of Galileo by Church authorities in 1611 for his insistence that the earth revolved around the sun and not the sun around the earth.

Scientists support GMOs

Renown men of science like Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard evolutionist, was one such scientist who argued that there was no contradiction between traditional religious beliefs and the worldview of modern science.

Another one was Stephen Hawking, the eminent British scientist who has tried to get to the bottom of many scientific theories including Einstein’s theory of relativity. He also concluded that there was no inevitable conflict between the theory of Creation of the world, and the scientific theory of existence of the world.

Let me now suggest that whether or not GMOs or Bt corn would be good for our people should be left to the better judgment of our relevant scientific agencies.

Remembering Boethius

In the process, we should be guided by the advice of Boethius, a learned man who wrote in the 4th century, A.D., that it would be best for those who are religiously inclined and scientifically curious to “join faith to reason as far as you are able.”

In this discussion, I found it fit to insert a brief sharing of certain religious attitudes because, whether we like it or not, the majority of our people are guided in their daily lives by the tenets of Christianity.

It is important to remember that the leaders of our Church are no longer blind to the advances of science and that, we do have pastors in our Church who would conjoin faith and reason in addressing matters of concern to our people and country in this time and age.

Duty to spread truth 

As citizens of this country, I think it is our duty to help spread the truth about things that have the potential to make cheap and safe food available to our people and to inform them of things that endanger their health and welfare.

I think it is time that we make full use of the advances of biotechnology – where applicable – and use it to help free our people from hunger – and from ignorance – so that they in turn may not only be receivers, but sharers of the wealth of the nation with those in dire need of it.

Salamat, for your kindness and patience in hearing our views on the topic at hand.

[Former Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. delivered this talk during the opening of the 12th National Biotech Week at the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM) last Nov. 21, 2016. Pimentel was the Local Governments Secretary in the aftermath of EDSA. He was elected senator in 1987.]