Biotech corn marks 20 years in PH

A FORUM organized by the Southeast Asian Regional for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) commemorated 20 years of the commercial planting of biotech or Bt corn in the Philippines.

The forum was titled "20 Years and Onward: Advancing the Future of Philippine Yellow Corn" and held earlier this month with the cooperation of Bayer Crop Science in the Philippines.

Attended by individuals from the academe, industry, business chambers, farmer groups, nongovernment organizations and the government, the forum looked back at key enabling policies as well as the situation of yellow corn across the country's value chain for the crop.

The forum was co-organized with the Philippine Seed Industry Association (PSIA), University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) Weed Science Society of the Philippines, Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), National Corn Program (NCP), CropLife Asia and CropLife Philippines (CLP), Philippine Feed Millers Association (PFMA) and Philippines Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture.

SEARCA Director Glenn Gregorio said the forum assessed the sector's opportunities, challenges and competitiveness.

"Also discussed were key actions and recommendations on how to ensure its continuous advancement amid the pressures arising from people's consumption, supply chain issues and the natural environment," he said.

During the event, Glenn Panganiban, the director of the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry, said the Philippines was among the first countries in Asia to adopt Bt corn, a genetically modified (GM) crop and implement a regulatory framework on genetically engineered crops.

In his examination of the 20-year journey of yellow corn, Abraham Manalo, BCP executive director, underlined the crucial role of policy in promoting the technology and supporting the growth of BT corn adoption over the years.

"Regulations should be stringent, science-based, but streamlined. There should also be other policies to back up these regulatory issuances to allow a policy environment that is evidence-based. Yellow corn stands on solid ground today because of our regulations. But our continued battle cry is for safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology," Manalo said.

According to Candido Damo of the NCP under the Department of Agriculture, about 90 percent of yellow corn in the country is GM, and that Bt corn has significantly increased its yield over the years as farmers continued adopting the biotech crop despite a decrease in planting hectarage.

Role of government and private sector

Damo said the government's interventions to boost the industry include capacity-building, providing large-scale postharvest machinery and facilities to farmer organizations, providing quality seeds and fertilizers, strengthening linkages with the livestock and poultry racers, and connecting farmers directly to the market.

To ensure the quality and integrity of GM corn seeds, Ramon Abadilla, CLP executive director, said it is the private sector's role "to practice strong stewardship, especially in farming, insect-resistance management, educating farmers on the proper use of their products and gathering feedback from the market."

"Expanding the yellow corn value chain is an opportunity for farmers to have higher-value crops and convert corn not only for feeds but also for industry inputs such as ethanol, hydrocarbon and bioplastics," Abadilla added.

Identifying the challenges and opportunities affecting the industry, Gabriel Romero, PSIA executive director, said the stewardship of seeds is critical in maintaining the integrity of their environmental traits and allowing farmers to continually access high-quality planting materials.

"Seed companies and technology developers should include farmers in the consultation process to ensure they deliver what the farmers need," Romero said.

To address the concerns on crop protection use, Analiza Ramirez of the UPLB Institute of Weed Science, Entomology and Plant Pathology said "stewardship should be a whole-of-nation approach."

"Farmers are accountable for their crops; the government provides funding and policy support for the technology; and the academe and the industry partner to produce science-based innovations," Ramirez said.

Emphasizing the importance of fostering partnerships among different stakeholders, PFMA President Edwin Mapanao noted the need to strengthen the distribution network through consolidators and clustering so farmers can be easily linked to the industry.

Iiinas Ivan Lao, Bayer Crop Science country commercial lead, explained that the future of corn farming is regenerative agriculture aimed at increasing productivity and income while renewing the environment.

Lao said innovations such as Bayer's Preceon Smart Corn System, which includes short-stature corn and digital farm insights, and modern breeding techniques will enable this future.

Meanwhile, a farmer-leader and biotech advocate from Cebu, Adriel Dave "Farmer AD" Alvarez, noted that an effective agriculture development agenda of mid- and upper-strata farmers should also be prioritized along with smallholder farmers.

Alvarez said there is a need for increased support for extension workers who will assist and train farmers and consolidators not only in farming and production but also more on agribusiness, market and linkages development.

"This is something we need in the Philippine agriculture ecosystem. A vibrant yellow corn industry will happen if all stakeholders are getting their economic bottom line. Technology is maximized if farmers can access it and make profits out of their operations. Small-scale farming alone cannot do that," he added.

Reaffirming SEARCA's support for the industry, Gregorio said the center remains steadfastly committed to convening knowledge creation and utilization activities that guide the development of policy recommendations to sustain and advance the gains of agricultural innovations like Bt corn in an increasingly complex environment.

"The next chapter for the Philippine corn industry will need collective action, a multistakeholder approach to expand what we have experienced in the past 20 years," he said.