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Views to Ponder: Understanding biotechnology


By Henrylito D. Tacio

Every third week of November, the country observes National Biotechnology Week. But until now, it seems that not all Filipinos, including Dabawenyos, seem to be aware of biotechnology.

I made a survey and asked those I met if they had ever heard of biotech corn and Bt eggplant. Only two of the 25 I inquired about answered that they had. Most of them responded: “What are those?”

If you don’t believe me, try to ask the person next to you while reading this, and I’m sure the reply would be the same.

If I remember it right, about 25 members of the Department of Agriculture (DA) Region 11 Press Corps visited institutions and organizations in Los Baños, Laguna, in 2016 to learn about the basic science, applications, and potential benefits of biotechnology.

The visit, which was organized by DA Region 11 and the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture Biotechnology Information Center, was conducted to enhance the Davao journalists to write/produce compelling stories on modern agricultural technologies, particularly biotechnology. 

At least two Davao journalists won the Jose G. Burgos Jr. Awards for Biotechnology Journalism. I won four awards (two in features and two in news categories) and was elevated to the Hall of Fame in 2018.

Ace June Rell Perez of Sun.Star Davao also won the award in 2017 for his news story, “PH is top grower of GM crops in SEA.” In winning the award, he was quoted as saying, “I commit to write science-based and evidence-based stories. I also encourage my fellow journalists to do the same.”

The Davao-based “Agri Tayo Dito” of ABS-CBN was adjudged Best Agriculture TV Program during the 12th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards for featuring the important issues of biotechnology in the country.

Another biotech champion from Davao City is Noel T. Provido of the DA regional office. When he was still with the information of the said office, he pointed out: “Wrong information (about biotechnology) led to unfounded fear that farmers and other stakeholders hold to until today.”

Biotechnology comes from two words: “bio,” meaning life, and “technology,” referring to tools and techniques used to achieve a particular purpose. It is broadly defined as “the art of utilizing living organisms and their products for the production of food, drink, medicine, or for other benefits to the human race, or other animal species.”

Actually, it is not a new technology. As a matter of fact, our forefathers had been making use of biotechnology since they discovered farming: with the planting of seeds to control plant growth and crop production. Animal breeding is also a form of biotechnology.

More recently, cross-pollination of plants and cross-breeding of animals were macro-biological techniques in biotechnology used to enhance product quality and/or meet specific requirements or standards.

DA is at the forefront in the promotion of biotechnology in our country. As Segfredo R. Serrano, then agriculture secretary, puts it: “We are developing and promoting biotechnologies that can ensure increased yields, low-production cost, and high-value products so that we can maximize the use of limited resources available for agriculture.”

One of its earliest successes is the application of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, which addresses the risks to production, resulting in increased yield. Most of the produced Bt corn is used as feed for livestock.

Bt, a soil-dwelling bacteria most commonly used as a biological pesticide, was also applied to our favorite fruit vegetable, eggplant. As a result, the crop can now resist the destructive eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB).

Soon, we will be eating golden rice, too. It is a new type of rice that contains beta carotene (provitamin A, a plant pigment that the body converts into vitamin A as needed). It is developed through genetic engineering.

Most of the biotechnology applications in the country are for food production. “We need biotechnology to combat against population increase, poverty, hunger, natural resources depletion, diseases, natural calamities and disasters, and too much dependence on synthetic agro-chemicals,” wrote Lorna Malicsi, an information officer of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD).

She went on that the use of biotechnology goes on “and more of it in the next years to come.” 

But all is not rosy, however. “I believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone,” deplored then Prince Charles in 1998.

Dr. Peter Wills, a theoretical biologist at Auckland University, agrees: “By transferring genes across species barriers which have existed for eons, we risk breaching natural thresholds against unexpected biological processes.”

To biotechnology critics, Malicsi begged: “Let’s open our doors and considers the merits of biotechnology: it can increase food and other resources for an equally increasing population in the Philippines and throughout the world; it can also be a tool to strengthen plant and animal resistance to pests and diseases; it can be used to invent medicines to cure, as in the case of insulin, a diabetic treatment; and many more. Let’s stop for a while, try and see for ourselves the merits of biotechnology.” 

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