>At the apex of the hierarchy of national goals is the imperative to eliminate extreme poverty and hunger among Filipinos. Sadly, about 27 percent of our population is mired below the poverty threshold.
Poverty is more severe among the rural population than among the people in the bigger towns and cities. In fact, the mass of the poor crowding the urban slums are rural people who flee the countryside to seek employment in the cities. Thus until such time that the services and industry sectors create sufficient jobs and livelihoods, the burden of raising our people from abject want rests on agriculture.
However, the harsh reality on the ground is that we are running out of arable land and irrigation water to produce enough food for our people. With our current population of about 95 million and available arable land of 10 million hectares, every Filipino has only 1,050 square meters of land with which to produce his/her food needs. With the continuing rapid growth of the population in the absence of a national consensus to moderate growth through family planning, and the rising inordinate conversion of arable land into industrial parks and settlements, per capita availability of land can only grow worse. The same is true for fresh water for irrigation.
The only solution, other than sending our people away as overseas workers, is the modernization and further intensification of agriculture.
We simply have to produce more and make more efficient use of scarce land and water resources without destroying these natural resources.
On the other hand, the two major threats to the environment – the loss of habitat and thereby, of biodiversity, and soil erosion – are associated with the conversion into arable cropping of the fragile forestlands.
Ironically, contrary to common wisdom, in order to conserve the environment, we must intensify agriculture on existing farmlands to diminish the need for conversion of what is left of our natural forests and wetlands.
Thus we have to avail of all technologies to modernize and further enhance productivity in agriculture without causing additional harm to the environment.
Much had been achieved with traditional and conventional modes of production, i.e., with proper cultural practices, with use of high yielding varieties including hybrids, various modes of pest and disease control (integrated pest management), proper postharvest handling, processing, storage, and transport. Higher planes of productivity have been achieved over time as new knowledge and modern technologies were made to bear on the challenge of higher productivity. The potential of conventional technologies has not been exhausted by all means and more can be expected in the future.
Among the means at our disposal to intensify agriculture are the so-called “biotechnologies.” Biotechnology is broadly defined as “any technique that uses living organisms to modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific use.” However this encompassing definition is not very meaningful because this includes practically all agricultural practices except those which are obviously engineering like land preparation, drying, and transport.
More meaningful is the distinction between conventional biotechnologies which do not require artificial manipulation of DNA versus the more modern biotechnologies which require manipulation of inheritance at the molecular level. This dichotomy is significant because conventional biotechnologies are by and large largely acceptable but there is some controversy, resistance, and uneasiness with molecular biotechnologies.
A large part of the agriculture we know today has to do with the manipulation of the genes or units of genetic inheritance of crops, livestock, and fish. They are manipulated by the conventional processes of sexual hybridization of parents of contrasting characters followed by selection among the progenies of succeeding generations which combine the best features of the parents.
However, new knowledge in biology and chemistry has made possible the identification of genes, their location in the chromosome, and the elucidation of their functions. With the New Biology, sections of DNA (the genes) can be isolated, characterized, reassembled into appropriate constructs, and then precisely and willfully transferred from one organism to another, across the sterility barriers which divide plants, animals, and microorganisms into orders, tribes and families – genetic divides which had been inviolate until recent years.
These new methods are called genetic transformations and their products, transgenics, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
This transfer and expression of genes from one organism to another remotely related species provided additional unequivocal proof of the unity of life and its common origin in the very distant past. However this novelty has made some people uneasy and fearful of its unknown consequences. Thus there is lobbying among naturalists to ban the applications of the New Biology in agriculture although there seems to be little hesitation in their use for production of drugs and other applications in human health such as gene therapy.
Because of the interrelatedness of living organisms with one another and their environment (the ecosystems), changes in any part of the ecosystem have potential consequences, both good and bad, to the rest. This has been the history of technologies in human civilization. Technologies invariably have consequences – beneficial ones, which is why they were developed in the first place and adverse ones, which are unintended and unplanned.
It is, therefore, a matter of assessing and anticipating the positive and adverse consequences of technologies and weighing their relative benefits and costs to society and the whole of humanity. Since individuals vary a lot in terms of their genetic constitution, personal circumstances, culture, and preferences, the ultimate choice is left to the individual.
It is in this sense that we should appreciate the potential of the new methods of molecular biology. It takes more than good seeds to raise productivity in agriculture and create meaningful livelihoods for the poor in the countryside. This novel class of modern biotechnologies could be useful when conventional technologies fail, when conventional methods take too long and are too expensive to develop. On the other hand, modern biotechnologies by themselves are not always useful enough. Almost invariably, these genetic transformation technologies are most beneficial when taken as adjuncts/supplements to conventional means. All of the 950 million hectares of GMO crops planted globally since 1996 have been conventional hybrids and high yielding varieties (HYVs) with one or two alien genes added.
DNA marker-assisted plant breeding is another good example. In conventional plant breeding, the tens of thousands of genes from each of the parents are combined in the hybrid. Six to eight generations of backcrossing are needed to recover the desired essential gene combinations of the recurrent parent plus one or a few new genes from the other parent. With a life cycle of 3-4 months for most arable crops, and in the tropics, where one can grow two generations a year, this means easily five years of development. With genetic transformation techniques, the 6-8 generations of backcrossing are not necessary because only one or two novel genes are transferred, not the whole genome. Thus the desired product can be developed in two generations. Moreover since selection is conducted at the genetic level, a few hundreds would suffice; there is no need to grow hundreds of thousands of the progenies.
However, the original preparatory work can be protracted and costly. The genome of the species must be fully mapped and the transformation and regeneration techniques perfected before GMO technology can be routinely applied.
The developed countries and the huge multinational corporations in the vanguard of modern transgenic technology commercialization naturally will have little interest in minor crops and minor traits (the so-called “orphan” crops/traits) of unique interest to us. Therefore, we must master the new science ourselves to advance and protect our national interest. We must develop national capability to generate the technology ourselves and install the system to regulate the new technologies to assure our people that these products are safe to eat and not harmful to the environment.
However, unlike in high-energy physics and the new engineering sciences, the required molecular biology infrastructure is relatively affordable for a developing country like the Philippines with a fair scientific and higher education system.
Thus the present enlightened national policy of safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology, including and, specifically, transgenic technology, is appropriate, timely, and affordable.
Therefore, we must express in no uncertain terms our objection to the well-meaning but misdirected efforts of some sectors to ban research and deployment of transgenic crops, livestock, and fish in our country. We must not deny our farmers and ourselves as consumers the benefits of new science which are properly vetted and regulated.
Moreover, let us go slow responding to the siren call of organic agriculture. We should adopt sustainable practices by all means but we must at the same time bring down the cost of food to make them accessible to the poor. It is debatable whether organic produce is more nutritious and tastes better than conventional food but for sure, organic produce is more expensive. Let the farmers who can profitably grow organic produce exercise the option. But organic agriculture should not crowd out mainstream conventional agriculture in our modernization efforts.