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MARCH 2009



Seeds of Promise, Change
- Editorial, Businessmirror (Philippines), Feb. 25, 2009

The talent is Filipino. The natural resources are here. Slowly but steadily, the moneybags of the government are heeding the relentless pitch by science-and-technology officials, and by pioneering enterprises and research and development institutions, to pour more funds into the work of Filipino scientists who have blazed a path for the future. Now, the only thing needed in this picture, it seems, is more political will, a keen sense of what we have, and a truly transparent, enlightened debate between advocates and critics of certain forms of biotechnology.

In the next three years, according to experts, three biotech crops will hit the Philippine market. More important, the country can be the world's leader in traditional biotechnology using old materials.

Rice with improved resistance to common pests is one of those seen to hit the market in the near future; and this and several other crops are being tested at the Mindanao campus of the University of the Philippines(UP), under the expert supervision of men like Dr. Eufemio Rasco, a Cornell University-schooled plant breeder.

It's good that Dr. Rasco, who typifies the increasing number of Filipino scientists blazing new paths in biotechnology that other richer countries have more quickly seized upon and profited from, is overseeing the UP Mindanao initiative; elsewhere in the UP System, especially in Los Baños, Laguna, similar efforts to quicken the pace of transforming the promise of biotech from research to full market application are going on.

Rasco foresees a leading role of the country in the application of traditional biotechnology using new materials, which he takes great pains to explain, as seen in Wednesday's forum in Davao-he rues the "impression that we are using modern biotechnology." Contrary to common perceptions, he says, "what we are using in the Philippines is still the traditional kind of biotechnology, but we are using new materials."

In developed economies, scientists have been using gene-splicing, or genetic engineering and protoplast fusion, or, "in general, any technique that forces unnatural or horizontal DNA transfer.

By and large, "plant breeding and studying evolution still [is a] part of traditional biotechnology," where, he says, Filipinos can lead, but not in modern biotechnology.

This area of biotech has spawned a myriad improvements in the quality of life the past few decades-whether in food processing and production, biomedical applications such as drugs and vaccines, and industrial applications like cleaning agents. Currently, Dr. Rasco is also leading experiments on sago, a kind of palm, from which could be derived starch as flour substitute in baking and other industrial uses.

By applying "traditional biotechnology process using new materials," Rasco's group has ventured into the micropropagation of neglected crops like the sago and the development of biofertilizers from rhizobacteria, also using sago.

Meanwhile, he notes how a lot of traditional biotechnology studies have veered also "into the new application of bioenergy," as the climate-change issue sparked the search for nonpetroleum sources of energy. Yet, as observed in this space earlier, experts and the government must avoid joining the stampede into bioenergy, which has confounded a lot of people who failed to weigh the risks and the opportunities from crops touted as sources of biofuels. In the Philippines, one risk is that many lands that could otherwise be used for food crops might be hijacked into jatropha plantations-owing to the loud whispers that several retired military officers have been moving to corner such plantation projects, with the government only too willing to oblige them.

To the lack of political will and the need for constant, enlightened debate on the critical biotech issues, one must add, then, the risks of cronyism being used to waste precious resources for ill-conceived, uneconomical ventures. All these problems notwithstanding, the outlook seems very promising-and should provide some hope in a year of doom and gloom.