Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pilipinas Forum 4: GMOs are good

Here is the collated and slightly edited exchanges in in February-May 2001. This is posted in last March 20, 2001.

Exchanges on Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Jeck, I read in the Manila Times that Bobby is anti-GMO. I suggest that he study the issue more carefully. I have done a 2 year study on the subject and I found that a good R & D program should be able to produce GMOs beneficial to our farmers much as they are to farmers in the countries where they are now grown. Farmers in General Santos City who monitored the Bt corn trial demonstrating 100% freedom from corn borer without pesticides feel strongly that they are being deprived of a very helpful technology by NGOs, priests and bishops who know nothing of their woes in corn farming.

Consider also: the planting of Bt cotton alone in 1998 in the
USA reduced the use of pesticides by 450,000 kgs, GM foods have been sold in the US since 1996 and last year about 70% of their processed foods contain ingredients from GMOs. Food safety is not an issue because all commercially released GMOs are undergo stringent tests on allergenecity and toxicity in addition ot numerous feeding trials involving rats, chicken, cattle, fish, birds, etc. A recent report of a 10-yr study shows that GMOs cannot become weeds.

Despite the vociferous campaign of European NGOs,
Europe remains an importer of certain GM crops and France, Germany, Spain have planted GM crops. Last year a large German company BASF, joined the group of multinational companies developing GM crops. The planting of GM crops further increased in Year 2000 to more than 44 Million hectares. Why? Several studies have already shown that economic benefits from the GM technology is spread to all stakeholders (farmers, seed producers, patent holders, consumers, importers) but that farmers gain the most from 35% to 75%.

So, what is the real issue here?
Europe wants to catch up with the technology, hence the moratorium campaign which by the way has now been lifted (Tayo'ng gaya-gaya, nahuhuli kasi, hindi natin naiintindihan yung mga tunay na rason nila). Europe wants to have a strong bargaining position in farm trade with the USA. Other groups have their own reasons but I tell you never the interest of the Filipino at heart.

Bobby could be losing a lot of votes from the progressive farmers (Why deprive
them of a choice?) and the scientific community.

-- Nina Halos

Dear Nina & all, Your posting on GMO's is an eye-opener. To the uninitiated however, GMO comes
across akin to an alien life form (sounds familiar) that might mutate over time into something as dreadful as that extra-terrestrial in the senate.

You have mentioned astounding economic benefits as well as "positive" environmental implications. Could you please enlighten us some more (especially the possible mutation scenario) on GMO's.

-- Sam Aherrera

The most prominent GMOs I could think of are the various rice varieties developed by IRRI (intl.), PhilRice (Phil. govt's), and other rice research institutes of many countries in the world. Just last week, the "golden rice" was reported to be near-commercialization. Golden because it contains essential vitamins to supplement our bodies' other needs; this way, "may bigas ka na, may vitamins ka pa", cute!

I could think of some benefits of GMOs (applied in rice, livestock, cutflower, fishery, etc.):

1. It beats the Malthusian (Thomas Malthus, 1800s economist) bleak formulation that mankind is destined for hunger because while food production increases arithmetically, population increases geometrically. Bio-technology, micro-biology, genetics science, and GMOs are mankind's current, perhaps ultimate, answer to problem in food production. Biotech allows a land-poor country or community to grow its food needs through hydro-ponics and its cousin technology. It also allows an upland farming community produce rice, corn, etc. through less irrigation-dependent varieties, etc.

2. It could be cheap, as cited by Nina, where certain GMOs require less fertilizers, less pesticides, than other varieties.

3. GMOs have higher yield, and tissue culture is a lot more productive in plant propagation than the traditional method of propagation through seeds and the like.

-- Nonoy Oplas

Dear Nina & Nonoy, In 1818, "The Modern Prometheus" a novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was
born. It is Gothic romance and science fiction combined and tells the story of one Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss student of occult sciences who creates an artificial man from pieces of corpses, brings his  creature to life and eventually loses his life because of the creature. The name Frankenstein has become popularly attached to the monster itself. Initially the monster seeks affection but ultimately turns out to be an impulsively violent creature.

Science fiction? The hallowed halls of the senate & the lower house are teeming with these creatures. We are in an eerie sense all Victor Frankensteins for creating such abominable creatures.

The science of today has cloning and GMOs. GMOs for the cutflower industry are okay. Decorative applications of GMOs are a boon to our export industry. We don't eat flowers yet do we? For rice, vegetables, fish, beef, poultry and pork for me to ingest and digest are however another matter altogether.

Imagine yourself & your family or date out for lunch or dinner and the waiter brings your order to your table and intones, "Sir, your order of cloned Angus strain 34325X Rib-Eye medium-rare topped with artificial Bernaise Sauce, grilled synthetically-mutated asparagus tips and poached DNA modified mashed potatoes with pseudo-wine cream. Enjoy your meal." How appetizing would that be?

Sure this may be the answer to our food production shortages. Corn borers will become extinct. Our rice will have essential (no need for star margarine) vitamins. The 20% agricultural (as correctly pointed out by Roy Picart) sector will benefit tremendously. GMOs might even eliminate mad cow disease, hoof and mouth disease and Salmonella in chicken & eggs. With declining food production
and increasing population, this might be the answer.

But until someone can show me that a representative sample of the global population has existed on a strict diet of GMOs alone for the last twenty years and has no known disease or exhibits weird symptoms, I'm sticking to organically grown fried garlic (sinangag) rice and fried wild anchovies (tuyo) laced with chili garlic (suka/sili/bawang) vinaigrette or escargots (kuhol) in coconut/chili/garlic sauce with grilled golden tubers (kamote) anytime.

Mutatingly yours,
-- Sam Aherrera

I have no objection to the introduction of products containing GMOs provided that they are appropriately labeled. As already pointed out, genetic engineering could boost efforts in achieving global food security. IRRI for instance, claims rice production has increased because of the introduction of pest-resistant and high-yield rice varieties. magnifying such achievements in many agricultural and agriculture-dependent sectors may well contribute to the lowering of food prices, and help eradicate malnutrition which remains a social plague in many developing economies.

Nonetheless, every consumer should be reserved the freedom of choice. Purchasing power, I suppose, would include not only the power to procure products and services but also the right -- or privilege -- to be informed regarding that which is purchased. at a time when society has yet to fully appreciate the health impact of GMOs, it is but proper -- and responsible corporate citizenship dictates -- that products containing them be labeled. this, to ensure that the consuming public is afforded the chance to ponder which ranks heigher in their heirarchy of values: cheaper prices and a sense of gastronomic adventurism or peace of mind.

-- Marc Perete

We have not really come out strongly against it. The most that we have is a bill that mandates labeling so that consumers have an informed choice. its house bill 11977. while bobby is open to listening to the pros and cons of the matter, he has a bias for organically grown and fed plants and animals, respectively. hybridization is also a technique that we can easily support.

- Jeck Reyes

I encountered this account on GM plants in The Economist magazine, Feb. 10 '01 issue (page 87), "Genetically modified weaklings". The expectation is that since genetically-modified crops have been "tinkered" for some superior qualities, they must be able to "lord it out" with other plants in its surroundings. Well, a scientist Mick Crawley and his colleagues at Imperial College London, found
out the reverse is true. That GM crops (the experiment covered rape, maize, sugar beet and potatoes) tended to curl up and die in the face of competition from wild species.

Why so? The physiologies of these plants were altered to serve human ends (food production) rather than being sharpened for the cut and thrust of life in the wild. "Natural selection", the article goes, "is very demanding. It will embarrass genes that are even slightly malign." The article concluded, "Any crop, no matter how robust, is necessarily symbiotic with people. Take away its human symbiont and it is unlikely to do well by itself."

- Nonoy Oplas

Arguments are very strong about how these plant (and animal) products could adversely affect human health in the long run. Another area of debate is how the genetically altered plant and animal sources are changing our ecosystem (or what is left of it) - which has developed through hundreds of years. Another area is related to the question of who controls what. Who has control over the production of yellow rice? It is a well known fact that biotechnology now is big business - run by major companies based in the most industrialized countries.

--Celia Correa

Hello guys, Let me start with Sam's concern about mutations. As a geneticist or one who studies how traits are transferred from parents to their children, I could not see how eating a GMO causes mutation. No chance at all. You eat a GMO, you digest it, any undigested item is expelled. The commercially released/grown GMOs are selected for genetic stability so the concern about GMOs mutating continually is unfounded.

The only difference between a GMO and its parent variety is the addition of a tiny bit of DNA, its concomitant 2-3 protein products and in some cases the product of the reaction catalyzed by the protein like Vit A. The proportion of the added DNA to the total DNA of the plant is about 1 centimeter (1 cm) to 10 kilometers, so you can see how little it is in relation to the total DNA which we digest and has no chance of being integrated into our own DNA.

We eat the DNA of various food items, rice, veggies, meat, etc. everyday. These are digested and never are they integrated into our own DNA. With the amount of rice that we eat, we should be looking like rice right now. (Di maputi na
sana tayo ngayon, hindi na gagasta para sa Block and White!!!)

Our ability to digest the new proteins as well as their possible allergenic and toxic effects are tested in the laboratory and these are required tests for any GMO destined for human food. Genetically modified corn like Bt corn and soybean like Roundup Ready soybean are further fed to various animals ( rats, mice, cattle, fish, chicken, pigs, birds) for evaluation of nutritional properties. Levels of natural anti-nutrients ( soybean and potato has these) are also monitored compared with the parental varieties. Any commercially produced GMO must pass these tests so I do not see how one who eats GMOs can accumulate these new products on their system. These tests are reviewed by the USFDA, USDA and USEPA.

The Inquirer item is an attempt at news sensationalization. Since we buy our corn and soybean from the
USA which is the number one producer of GMOs in the world and has been producing GMOs since 1996, we must have been eating genetically modified corn and soybean since 1997. As I have indicated above, these varieties have passed the rigid review of the USFDA, I do not see any reason for panic. I believe our own BFAD does random tests on the safety of food sold in the country, hence Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, the no nonsense BFAD Director has confidently announced in the issue of Manila Bulletin today that GM foods are safe.

How do GMOs look like? Do they look different? Not at all, a GM corn looks like any corn plant, a GM papaya like any papaya only it is healthier, no spots.

Where did this idea about GM food causing mutations came from? It is actually one of those scary tactics employed by anti-GMO lobby groups. They claim that GMOs are mutants and imply that eating them would cause you mutations. Humbug!!! We eat mutants everyday, also. The crops we have today are mutants selected from the wild by our ancestors. But if you want a more graphic example, the macapuno is a mutant as well as the sweet corn. White rice is a mutant of red rice.

I have also been asked about the safety of GM foods. But as I have indicated above, GM crops are tested for all the properties of food we worry or care about, toxicity, allergenecity, anti-nutrients and of course, nutritional properties. A GM variety must be similar to its parental variety in all these properties. The parental variety is one of the best commercial varieties that has been planted and utilized for quite sometime and therefore proven safe.

I have already written about the benefits farmers can gain from GM crops. Especially for small farmers who cannot afford chemical inputs, their gains would be much more than the rich farmers, this is the experience of South African farmers. With Bt crops, farmers save themselves as well as their farm environment from too much exposure to pesticides which are already proven health and environmental hazards. A word of caution, though, GM crops is not the magic panacea to our farming troubles. Further, there are certain farming situations when GM crops will cause losses rather than profit.

As far as I know, all the anti-GMO sentiment is based on speculations and projections from preliminary or laboratory studies. Serious research conducted for various agencies such as the FAO, European Council (yes, contrary to what is being bandied about) and the US National Academy of Sciences, have all concluded that GM crops are as safe as conventionally bred crops. The
Pontifical Academy of the Vatican see no ethical issue as long as genetic engineering of crops benefits mankind.

One should not generalize with GMOs. GMOs differ. The GMO producing insulin for diabetics can never have the same properties as the Bt corn, nor can Bt corn have the same properties as the Round-up Ready soybean.

The new proteins and the new trait acquired by a GM crop depends on the piece of DNA (gene) it has received.

The claim about GMOs being allergenic is based on a soybean plant that received a Brazil nut gene which produces a protein known to be allergenic to certain individuals. Transferring this protein from the Brazil nut to the soybean retained the allergenecity of the protein. This genetically modified soybean was never commercialized.

The claim about GMOs being toxic is based on the discredited findings of Dr. Puztai about GM potato fed raw to rats. The gene transferred produces a protein that is toxic when raw. Besides raw potato contains anti-nutrients that can be detoxified by cooking. Hence, this finding does not apply to all GM crops.

The claim that GM crops cause cancer is based on the finding about Bgh, the hormone produced by a microbial GMO and injected to cows to produce more milk. The presence of Bgh is supposed to be associated with the presence of another protein which has been found associated with certain cancers. Whether this cancer-associated protein is the result or the cause of cancer is not known. Anyway, the Bgh hormone do not have the same effect as the other new proteins transferred to crops like the Bt protein, the herbicide protein, etc. If they are, these proteins should have been injected also to cows so the cows will produce more milk. On the other hand, the cow injected with Bgh should have developed cancer long ago but they did not.

As for the environmental impact of GM crops, we must conduct field trials precisely to determine this effect since we are in the tropics. The environmental findings in temperate countries do not necessarily apply.

Genetic modification or the more appropriate term, genetic engineering, can help us develop the kind of crops needed by our farmers and consumers faster than conventional plant breeding. In rice for example, it takes 12 years to incorporate disease resistance which can be done in 6 years through genetic engineering. Precisely what we need with the rapid rate of our population growth. There are even cases when the solution is only through genetic engineering such as the virus disease that destroyed the papaya industry of
Cavite or the virus diseases of abaca and banana.

What is in it for consumers? Pesticide residue is a real problem here in this country. The health hazard of pesticide residues is real and I would rather eat a Bt crop than our current crop of eggplants, tomatoes or green corn with their concomitant high pesticide residues. Our corn because of corn borer infestation and poor drying is sometimes laden with aflatoxin, a known cancer-causing substance. These problems can be avoided with GM crops.

Hence, what is really needed is for us to develop our capability and provide more funds for genetic engineering research.

If GMOs are this good, why is there so much negative publicity against GMOs? Although some of the technical concerns are genuine, the spread of this anti-GMO sentiment started from
Europe. There are many anti-GMO groups with different interests, different motives, different ideologies. I believe that Europe promotes the anti movement to delay GM crop development so Europe can eventually catch up with the USA. European countries are actively engaged in GM crop research after all. It is also possible that some support comes from chemical pesticide companies since the reduction of pesticide use by GM crops is substantial (US 1998 figure for Bt cotton is the savings of 450,000 kgs. of insecticide). Greenpeace probably wants political power the world over since it is already gaining ground in Europe. Then, of course, you have the anti big business, anti-multinational, anti-establishment groups. The genuine concerns can be addressed by research and a strong regulatory framework.

The press statement of GMA about GMO field trials is ill-advised. GMA justifying her statement as the demand of civil society is insensitive. Civil society (aka NGOs) did not place her as president. She owes her position to the majority of the Filipinos who voted her as Vice president and to those of us who went to EDSA. If she has any dream of being voted as president, she has to listen to us and not to those NGOs whose activities and positions are determined by their funding agencies, mostly foreign. My study by the way was funded by the Philippine government.

What our farmers are waiting for is GMA's or PPC's program to reduce the absolute number of poor people in the rural area. For example, what we need is an agriculture program that reduces the need for unskilled labor in the farms. Why do we need to reduce unskilled farm labor? Because, this is the cheapest form of labor, often taken by the landless and/or assigned to members of the family, hence, it perpetuates rural poverty. We have to give the farmer and other rural folks opportunities to undertake higher income activities by providing them the training, the technologies like GM crops and the machines.

And Jeck, organic farming is expensive. Only the Makati Elite which many Filipinos do not belong to can afford organically grown food. One of the big suppliers is Don Ernesto Escaler of the Gourmet Farm in Tagaytay not our small resource-poor farmers.

Sam, if you want labelling, you have to pay for it. I, an average Filipino do not want to pay for it because I know GM foods are safe. Besides, how would you label the morning "taho" of the average Filipino? So, my suggestion is to have negative labels, i.e. GM-free labels. Like organic food, GM-free food would have a premium. You see, only the rich have a choice, the poor takes whatever they
can afford.

Jeck, my BS is agriculture at UPLB and my Ph.D is in genetics at the
University of California, Berkeley. You may check it. I have done research using the different techniques of biotechnology, fermentation, tissue culture, genetic engineering, DNA analysis. I have established a number of biotechnology laboratories, the first tissue culture lab for forest species, a multicrop commercial tissue culture laboratory, the former genetics laboratory of BIOTECH, the Genetic engineering and DNA analysis Lab of the UPNSRI which I still manage part time and the UPNIMBB Laboratories of UPDiliman where I was a former professor and coordinator.

-- Nina Halos

OK OK OK so it does not cause mutations. More questions to Dr. Halos please

1) "We must have been eating modified corn & soybean since 1997 and these have been approved by the USFDA, USDA & USEPA". Is this enough time to ascertain its safety? Four (4) Years? What is considered a "normal" period to prove that the product is indeed safe?

2) You have mentioned also that our setting (the tropics) is dissimilar to the
US hence what might be considered safe in Idaho or Wisconsin might not be safe for Isabela, Cainta or General Santos City. It's also like saying that because its USFDA that says so I should take it hook, line & sinker. That's right smack into this colonial mentality bit of anything made in USA is good for little brown Filipino Sam. Heck, I gave up my green card to sink & swim in the Philippines. Shouldn't Dr. Go the no-nonsense BFAD Director do more extensive studies and not just random tests in the tropics (the Philippines) and make these available to brownies like me?

3) "If GMOs are this good, why is there so much negative publicity against GMOs? Although some of the technical concerns are genuine..."

Yes, why so and what on earth are these genuine technical concerns? Like I said, GMOs could be the answer to our food production shortages but until & unless there has been enough (yes, what is reasonably enough?) time, I'm sticking to soybean sago with caramel topping (Taho) for breakfast.

--Sam Aherrera

Sam, on (1): The whole research period was actually 20 years for Bt corn which included early feeding trials. The basic concept also is if by comparative tests, a GMO gives similar result as its parent variety in toxicity, allergenecity and feeding trials, then it is as safe as the parent variety. After all , this GMO contains no new chemical substance only a bit of added DNA and proteins which are normal components of foods. There are more than 200 million Americans in a 4-year feeding trial, that is more extensive than any clinical trial I am aware of.

On (2): This is not colonial mentality but rather an expression on the equality of men, we have the same stomach conditions whether we are white, black or brown. BFAD tests all food preparation in accordance to internationally accepted standards, random testing is just part of the procedure. The dissimilarity is more on environmental conditions. What easily degrades in the tropics may stay intact in the cooler zones. The plants and insects in the tropics are different from those in the temperate zones, hence, we need to find out how GMOs affect these life forms here.

On (3): Yes, why so and what on earth are these genuine technical concerns? Gene flow among related species is one, effect on friendly organisms is another. A social concern is the access of small farmers to the technology which can be remedied if public funds are expended to develop the technologies for our farmers. In which case, we do not have sufficient manpower - the technical competence is specialized - and our funds are limited.

The chances that your taho is derived from genetically modified soybean is more than 50%!!! We buy soybean from the
USA, remember? Happy eating anyway!!!

-- Nina Halos

I've been here in the "land of milk and honey" for a while and news about cloning is all over the place. Yes, it has happened but that doesn't mean that it has been accepted practically by all sectors (well, they still have to justify the morality of cloning and I think, generally, it's not accepted yet except by those who are desperate). About GMO's, there sure are eons of chili, mushroom, eggplant, etc. varieties (species) in the market but I'm not sure if they are GM. What I know is that they were just brought over here and they remained unadulterated. I remember that there was a taco manufacturer that recalled all its tacos because the corn used was a GM (I don't know which varieties they were including their mineral contents) and apparently not fit for human consumption.

Do you consider a hybridized orchid a GMO? If we have been eating mutated vegetables ever since how come these GMOs are controversial and sensational there? But I think, you're right Sam in ascertaining its fitness for human consumption. I'm sure you are aware that there have been instances when medicines and chemicals (was it some kind of a fertilizer?) that have been banned in the states but were dumped in third world countries like the Phils.

-- Genes Marquez

Genes, Cloning and GMOs are two different matters. Cloning is making copies of one organism. The big controversy in cloning is the cloning of man. It is banned in the
US but is now allowed in the UK and I think it has been done in Israel and Korea(?). The Church says, the clone will not have a soul, the legal minds would have difficulties in assigning property rights, is my clone my son?
GMO is an organism that has been conferred a desirable trait by receiving a piece of DNA through a laboratory procedure called genetic engineering. Conventionally, plants and animals acquire new traits by traditional breeding (selection and hybridization) or through mutation.

The controversy about GM in taco concerns only a particular GM corn, Starlink corn that was approved for animal feeds and industrial processing but not for human consumption but has been detected in tacos and other food items. These items have been recalled. The new protein in this particular GM corn apparently is not easily digestible and therefore may cause an allergic reaction. A few people have already come forward claiming some allergic reaction. This is easily tested but since I have not read anything about any of these claims prospering, it could be one of those things when some people think they might get lucky and make some easy buck.

Your cheese has a 70% chance of it being made with GM enzyme.

-- Nina Halos

Thanks for the information. It is interesting to get it from scientists who are themselves involved in the development of these amazing technologies. I beg to differ from some of the conclusions made about GMO's though. The notion that GMO's is the answer to world hunger I think is very wrong. There are enough food sources in the world to feed its population. The problem is in the control and distribution of these resources. The same forces of control and monopolization will determine what GMO's get produced, who will distribute them and who will benefit from them.

-- Celia Correa

See also, Bt eggplants and petty environmentalism, December 20, 2010

No comments: