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Adopting Biotechnology in RP

Philippine Daily inquirer
October 9, 1999
By Tessa R. Salazar

Proponents of plant biotechnology believe that genetic engineering will help solve food shortage in the country and the rest of the Asian region. Environment and farmer groups, on the other hand, believe that biotechnology and genetic engineering are heading toward a very perilous direction.

With 80 percent of the people in Asia being farmers, and farming being an integral component of the Philippines, transforming agriculture through this technology can help strengthen the economy and help improve the life of rural folk in the country.

This was claimed by Dr. Channapatna S. Prakash in an interview with the Inquirer. Prakash is a professor and the director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama.


There's this issue raised by farmers and scientists about "terminator technology" which creates seeds that will become sterile in the next generation. This, they say, would deny the farmers' basic rights to reuse the seeds from their harvests.

This was a technology that's been developed by a lot of companies. What it really does is if you buy a seed from the company then you won't be able to use that seed to plant the next generation. This is a very controversial technology and now even companies like Monsanto have stopped working on it because of so much public sentiment against it.

But again, as a devil's advocate, if you look at it, technology is neither good nor bad_it is the way we use it. You can take electricity and make an electric chair out of it or you can take the electricity and bring so much joy to the world. You can take nuclear technology, you can bomb Hiroshima or Nagasaki as the Americans did or you can create all the cheap environmental tools. So this is one technology like that. I personally don't think (using it would lead) to the end of the world.

You see, if you were to run a company, you wouldn't want to give your products for free. If you are developing software, and if everybody copies your software, you can go buy Windows 98 for $1. And so what incentive does Microsoft have to spend about $3 billion just to do research in developing software that help us in every way?

Companies need to protect their investments on those crops, knowing that you can take a soyabean and never have to go back to the company to buy it. But it still does not mean that you will be forced to grow soya. For most farmers they don't want it. And secondly, this can be a good technology because there are certain genes that are not very safe for the environment and yet they bring in value.

What do you think of the anti-biotechnology stance from different sectors in the country?

If the Filipino society thinks this is a dangerous technology and if you don't want it, then ban it. I think you have every moral right to stop its use, but then please look at it with an open mind. Please look at it with all the pros and cons. If you just dwell on the negative, our societies in the Third World would always be much backward than what they are now.

And again, I have a suspicion that some of the activists who are helping stop technology from coming in to the third world are all European-based. They are all not Americans. And so these activists clearly have a vested interest. What they are doing is to perpetuate these myths and create fear and scare. They are going to ensure that our Third World farmers will always be backward. Because without the technological infusion, without science and innovation, there is really no hope for our farmers, whether in the Philippines, Bangladesh, or India, who have 10 times less income than somebody who lives in the city.

In case there will be environmental accidents on Bt corn field experiments, who will be liable? (Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a toxin injected into some crops).

The industry should be liable, it should be accountable. But by knowing the technology, I don't think it is not going to be anything catastrophic because Bt is a protein that's been borrowed from a bacteria and we have been using this bacteria to spray, to control pests for 30 years. And so in terms of its food safety or the environmental problem of it, you are not going to have a problem.

When you consume Bt corn, the Bt protein is not going to affect you in any way because first it only affects certain insects, it doesn't affect other insects like honeybees or cockroaches. There's absolutely no toxic effects because they don't have the receptor. This is very, very specific.

Second, when you consume corn, you always cook it. And finally, you should always examine the alternatives. If you are not going to use Bt corn, the other corn that you're gonna be eating (will have other) pesticides anyway. I'm not saying pesticides are bad, but it is not going to be an environmentally friendlier alternative compared to Bt. And the cost to the farmers is going to be passed on to you. Always look at the choices and the alternatives.

Who will really benefit more from the Bt corn, the corn farmers or the big multinational companies?

I think both. I think society will benefit eventually but it is like when you are buying a computer. Will you ask the same question to Microsoft? Will Hewlett-Packard benefit? Of course. Bill Gates is $100 billion rich. There's nothing wrong if people who develop and add knowledge to society can benefit from that as long as that benefit is shared and percolates across society.

The way I should ask it is: are multinationals going to get so rich that everybody else is going to be so poor. The answer is no. Multinationals like Monsanto have been investing $1 billion every year to develop this technology for the past 15 years.