The Bt corn hype
By Anabelle E. Plantilla
Manila Times, May 31 2008
The Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (Searice) is a regional development NGO working with farming communities on conservation, development and sustainable use of plant genetic resource in Bhutan, Lao PDR, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines in collaboration with civil society organizations, government agencies and academic research institutions. Searice is also doing policy advocacy and campaign work on seed-related issues such as raw and emerging technologies (i.e. hybrid rice, genetic engineering in food and agriculture), application of intellectual property rights on seeds and advocacies for promotion and realization of farmers’ rights to seeds. Recently, I got hold of their study on Bt corn adoption in three corn-producing provinces in the Philippines in 2006.
One of the claims of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAA), an international GMO lobby group, is that the Philippines is one of the 'biotech mega-countries' of the world, ranking among the largest hectarage of GM crops planted, specifically genetically modified maize amounting to 200,000 hectares in 2006. Searice disputes this claim because according to the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Plant Industry (DA-BPI), seed companies' combined sales targets to be planted with Bt corn amounted to only 68,000, hectares which is way below the area previously mentioned. Cumulatively, the companies' sales targets from 2003 to 2006 totalled 188,669 hectares which appears to be a more approximate figure to the 200,000 hectares claimed by ISAAA for 2006 alone. Searice contends that this information misleads and deceives the public to make it appear that Bt corn is successfully being adopted by farmers on a very large scale and that there is demand for Bt corn across the country. Unfortunately, the DA-BPI said that companies only submit sales target reports and not their actual sales of Bt corn. There is no means to verify how many hectares are actually planted to Bt corn.
Searice conducted a study in 2006 mainly to find out the farmers' adoption and assessment of Bt corn. The study covered three of the top corn-producing provinces in the country: Isabela, Bukidnon and North Cotabato. The results showed that only 25 farmers out of 790 respondents or a measly 3.16 percent planted Bt corn during the main cropping season of 2006 amounting to only 3 percent of all the respondents’ total corn area. The study also found out that prior to the first cropping season, few farmers who tried using Bt corn did not repeat planting its seeds. The most common reason given by the farmers for non-repetition is that Bt corn seeds are more expensive than non-Bt corn seeds. Other reasons given were: a) grains from Bt corn had the same market price as that of non-Bt corn grains; b) Bt plants were prone to aphids; c) corn borer infestation was still present; d) yields were poor; and e) kernels tended to be shrunken in size. These responses dispute the claimed advantage of Bt corn over other corn varieties and the fact that farmers did not repeat planting showed the failure of the varieties.
On the other hand, the majority of corn farmers who never planted Bt corn cited the following reasons for not adopting Bt corn: a) Bt corn seeds were more expensive; b) no information received about Bt corn; c) not convinced of the yield advantage of Bt corn over non-Bt corn seeds; d) Bt corn perceived harmful to human health; and e) corn borer is manageable through proper timing of planting without resorting to Bt corn. The commercialization of Bt corn was supposed to address the problem of corn borer infestation which the proponents claimed is the major problem among corn farmers. Contrary to this, the Searice study showed that the more important problems for farmers are rat infestation, stalk rot, aphids, grasshopper and leaf sheathblight. Moreover, farmers reported that they have other means of controlling corn borer without resorting to Bt corn. The most effective method is simply for farmers to plant corn during the main cropping season when corn borer infestation is minimal. For farmers, Bt corn is, therefore, unnecessary as manifested by farmers’ non-adoption of the technology. More next week.