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State should lead the fight against GM food
In 2002, the Philippines had the (dis)honour of being the first country in Asia to authorise the commercialisation of GMOs, when it approved the release of Monsanto’s Bt maize amid nationwide protests. Since then, genetic contamination has been reported in maize-growing areas throughout the country.

In the north-western province of Isabela, a local variety of white glutinous maize grown by farmers for food has reportedly been contaminated by GM maize. No gene testing has been done but farmers identify the contamination by the yellow kernels that appear in the otherwise white maize. In Bayambang, Pangasinan, farmers typically plant maize after rice. But now they are complaining that they have lost practically all the traditional maize varieties in the province due to contamination by hybrid and GM maize. They also fear for their health, as there have been incidents of children being taken to hospital for incessant vomiting after accidentally eating GM maize. There was also a report of a farmer’s cow that became sick and eventually died after being fed with Bt maize.

In Bukidnon, in the southern Philippines, some communities are responding to contamination by separating the lower-priced yellow kernels from the higher-priced white ones before selling to the market. In Capiz, another major maize-producing province in Central Philippines, farmers are saying that almost all the province’s maize-growing area is contaminated with GM maize and that they can no longer find traditional varieties to grow.

MASIPAG is a national farmers’ network with a maize programme that collects and improves traditional varieties throughout the country. Recently, the group’s back-up farm in San Dionisio, Iloilo (not far from Capiz) was contaminated. The area is a major producer of hybrid maize, and about three years ago mass cultivation of GM maize began by way of a contract growing scheme managed by local elites.

At least three native varieties used for farmer breeding in the back-up farm were immediately contaminated by the GM maize. At harvest, it was observed that there were yellow grains mixed with maize ears of pilit-puti and mimis – these are traditional varieties used by farmers for food. The area planted with maize on the back-up farm was only 50–100 metres from the nearest maize farms. Bamboo trees along the creek serve as natural barriers, but since the neighbouring fields are sloping, MASIPAG believes that pollen from the GM maize could nevertheless have been carried to these fields by the wind.

Researchers at the farm say that in the first year of planting after GM maize was introduced, they found 7–12 yellow grains in every maize ear. The following year, no maize was planted. This year, a small portion of the farm was again planted with white maize, adjacent to another farm planted with GM maize. Of the 50 grains counted in the average ear, only 18 were white and the remaining 32 were yellow. MASIPAG tried to explain the situation to the neighbouring farmers, but they are facing debt problems because of the contract growing scheme and are unable to stop growing GM maize.

In 2008, MASIPAG organised a national maize assessment meeting that brought together farmers from across the country. They agreed that it seems impossible to stop contamination, and that, while much is still unknown, it is crucial that they deal with the post-contamination situation. They believe that a range of approaches is needed to ensure that seeds will remain in their hands. One proposal is to develop visual indicators for detecting contamination. Some of the indicators initially identified include: abnormalities in the colour, size and appearance of maize kernels, and deformities in leaf formation.

Another idea is to collectivise monitoring at the community level. Each farmer could help to map out who plants GM maize and where. The map would be shared with the community and would allow farmers to time their planting so as to avoid contamination. Farmers believe that time isolation can potentially minimise, if not totally prevent, contamination by cross pollination. They also see that stronger links among maize farmers – and sharing sources of uncontaminated seeds – in different provinces will greatly help to minimise the impacts of contamination.

At government level, meanwhile, the push to promote GMOs continues. At a “2008 National Biotechnology Week”, held very recently, two Cabinet officials stressed the need to harness biotechnology “to boost the country’s food production, develop cheaper but effective medicines, and upgrade the production of commodities using higher-yielding crops with higher nutritional content”. The Environment Secretary, Lito Atienza, went as far so to express his confidence in the “immeasurable benefits” of using biotechnology to protect the environment and to address the problems of food insufficiency.

Yet just a week before this, RESIST – a national network of farmers, NGOs and academics – held a forum to present and discuss the first results of their case studies of farmers’ experience with Bt and Round-up Ready maize from three provinces in the country’s main arable regions. Initial findings point to a worrying trend: yield and income from these two GM maize varieties did not improve significantly (in most cases they were the same with ordinary hybrids), but at the same time a recurring increase in pest incidence, chemical use, and debt was observed. Loss of genetic diversity due to contamination was also reported due to indiscriminate planting of these GM maizes, occasionally with subsidies from the government’s maize programme.

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