SPECIAL REPORT: Bt crops: boon to farmers or genetic hoax? (1)

1st of three parts

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/19 December) — In the 1970s, at the onset of the martial law era, the Marcos government implemented a program  called the “Green Revolution,” which purported to increase agricultural production many times over using “modern” farming methods. Farmers were convinced to plant hybrid rice varieties churned out by scientists at the International Rice Research Institute of the University of the  Philippines in Los Banos, with ample help from multinational companies and donor institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation and even by United Nations agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization and UN Development Programme.

The selling point for these laboratory-created rice varieties was that they would bear grains almost twice as fast as the indigenous varieties, which normally took as much as six months before they could be harvested. It was not made known to the farmers and the bigger public that the “new” varieties were actually produced from the genes of indigenous ones. A great genetic robbery had begun with government blessings.

In “World Hunger: 12 Myths,” authors Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins, and Peter Rosset note that many rice farmers in countries like the Philippines adopted the program, hoping to end a life of poverty through increased productivity and higher income. While admitting that “grain production and in some cases, exports, have climbed,” the authors point out however that “hunger has persisted and the long-term productive capacity of the soil is degraded. Now we must fight the prospect of a ‘New Green Revolution’ based on biotechnology, which threatens to further accentuate inequality.”

What the farmers who adopted the Green Revolution belatedly realized is that the rice varieties being promoted were heavily dependent on chemical inputs. It was not coincidental that the manufacturers of the chemical inputs – fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides – were multinational corporations.

With the passing of each farming season, the farms gradually lost their fertility and the pests became immune to the chemicals and so the need for higher doses in the succeeding seasons, offsetting the higher income, if any, promised by the new technology. As ecologist Vandana Shiva notes in “The Green Revolution in the Punjab” the “miracle” seeds of the Green Revolution “have become mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases.” (http://livingheritage.org/green-revolution.htm)

Meanwhile, aside from the adverse environmental and ecological impacts of the Green Revolution, the indigenous varieties which had cost the farmers much less in terms of finances slowly disappeared from most farms. It is said that the multinational agricultural companies are keeping  the germplasm of these native varieties in their laboratories.

As Shiva observes in the same article:

“The Green Revolution package has reduced genetic diversity at two levels. First, it replaced mixtures and rotations of crops like wheat, maize, millets, pulses and oil seeds with monocultures of wheat and rice. Second, the introduced wheat and rice varieties came from a very narrow genetic base.”

Bitter lessons learned from the failed program have led to a rediscovery of the inherent advantages of employing organic farming methods as the backbone of ensuring food security. Various farmers groups and individual farmers, agriculture learning centers and environment groups have been promoting organic farming with some mount of success, although much still needs to be done in trying to wean farmers away from their reliance on chemical inputs.

Yet, just as Philippine farmers are starting to gradually shake off the shackles of an agriculture regime which critics say has been dictated by the drive for profit of multinational companies, they are confronted with another challenge, if not threat, posed by the forces of neoliberalism, again with ample help from government – the planned commercialization of the controversial Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant in the country by 2012.

Field trials of the Bt eggplant are in progress across the country, although the one implemented inside the campus of UP Mindanao in Davao City has been stopped by the city government on the grounds that it did not comply with the biosafety requirements set for genetically engineered crops. On December 17, the university, amid some reservations, complied with Mayor Sara Duterte’s order to uproot the experimental plants.

Groups opposed to the Bt eggplant rejoiced over Duterte’s decision. But the debate on the merits of the crop with regard to safety and other issues is far from being settled. Based on exchanges in public forums and media like the Internet, one party always finds a ready answer to what the other party would say [for or against Bt eggplant]. The debate over the GMO-laced eggplant is like experiencing all over again the verbal tussle on the equally controversial Bt corn some 10 years ago. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews) [Tomorrow: Arguments for and against]