Medium Isn't Metaphor

For several years, biotechnology has been demonized in this country, its reputation ruined by fears that it is actually genetic engineering (GE), with plant and animal breeders conspiring to produce Frankenstein crops and monster animals that would prey on humans, just like the Democrats who feast on the innards and blood of children via the most credible source of info on this planet: Qanon.

In a post-truth world dominated by shared psychosis, facts no longer matter, and the truth is muscled out of the way by the purveyors of superstition and their acolytes in the shackled press, social media and hallowed, haunted halls of Malacanang.

Debate has been trivialized, facts are impugned, news presenters become the news and well-coiffed reporters are believed, not the facts they dispense.

Neil Postman correctly assailed the marriage of advertising and journalism as subverting Marshall MacLuhan's maxim "the medium is the message," and Filipinos have poked a cynical twist to the adage, rendering it as "the medium is the massage," by way of the envelope or some fuel delivered by GCash.

To Postman, the "message is the metaphor" and substance is translated as an adornment, call it bibelot or crinkum-crankum.

Last Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, scientists in UP Los Banos took pains to talk about biotechnology and how its 15,000-year history has yet to be appreciated, understood and applied by the teeming millions of farmers at the forefront of the country's battle against hunger, poverty and ignorance.

It has become a tall order for the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Inc. to preach the gospel of scientific salvation, the uplift of agricultural productivity and the advances in plant and animal biotechnology and convince journalists to disseminate information, the unburnished truth if you will, and see if the promised progress would come to pass.

Dr. Glenn Gregorio welcomed the mainly Manila-based scribes, while ISAAA executive director Dr. Rhodora R. Aldemita revealed that globally, food production has risen 70% due to genetically-modified (GM) crops in low-income and industrialized countries, a big leap, indeed, in a world where 828-million people are still hungry, many of them waiting for rice costing P20 a kilo. GM crops are now grown in 900,000 hectares in the Philippines, while 190.4 million hectares worldwide are planted to approved GM crops, 105.7 million hectares of which are in developing countries. Aldemita reported that in the past 22 years, farmers' profits rose markedly.

Yet, savants must admit, good news seldom sell, but bad news also cannot nourish anyone. Ma. Lourdes U. Agbagala, the head of the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) secretariat, said the protocol for biotech crops has been reassessed and revised, reducing the red tape and implementing sustained analysis of the crops to ensure they are good for food, feed and processing (FFP.)

Turning to gene editing guidelines that also cover the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) technique pioneered by 2020 Nobel laureates Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, Ms. Geronima P. Eusebio, chief of the biotech office of the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) of the Department of Agriculture (DA), said plant breeding has been practiced since 10,000 B.C., presumably at the vicinity of the megalithic structures at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey while genetic modification (GM) was developed only in the 1990s while genetic editing ruled to roost only in the 2000s. In short, there was a big leap in the last three decades. Japan developed the GABA tomato, the first tomato GE, and promoted it after proving that it lowers blood pressure, an affirmation that food is medicine.

Canola, originally Canadian oil with less acid, now grows more pods to increase oil yield, while cherry tomatoes now have more lycopene, boosting the nutritional value of the fruit (yes, tomato is a fruit.) Credit must also be given to the Filipino scientists who developed reduced browning bananas this year. This banana was gene edited but is not genetically modified.

Dr. Maribel Zaporteza of the Institute of Biological Sciences of the College of Arts and Science in UP Los Banos, discussed the ups and downs of animal biotechnology, particularly in disease control, with Oxytech's female OX5034 GM ae aegypti mosquito to surviving to adulthood, thus breaking its capability to spread diseases.

The cloning of Dolly, the sheep, was a watershed in animal biotechnology as it involved the use of sperm and egg cells fertilized at the lab and then inserted into an ewe.

Hornless cows were also produced using polled genes with TALENS, an accomplishment notched by the companies Recombinetics and Semtex.

For medical research, CRISPR monkeys with modified circadian rhythm were created, while GE pigs have been raised for organ and tissue transplants to humans. In Canada, scientists were able to develop "spider goats" that can produce more meat, milk and substances that approximate the strength of spider webs.

In Japan, animal breeders excised myostatin in sea bream, while leptin was deleted from the fugu, a fish that members of the royal family are barred from consuming. Here, expect carabaos that are sturdy, better milk producers and have more meat.

Despite their big tasks, the DA's BPI, UPLB's animal biotechnologists and those mandated to produce higher-yielding rice varieties, are not a pampered lot.

One of them admitted that her office only has four personnel, another lamented the lack of funding support, and still another admitted that much could be done if they have all the facilities they need, and this does not need any investment approximating the magical P125-million confidential and intelligence funds (CIF) that the Office of the President (OP) generously granted to Vice President Sara Zimmerman Duterte Carpio in the dying days of December 2022 as the regime threw the Constitution under the bus.

Moreover, there is little incentive for scientists to lose their hair to achieve food security when all the DA does under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is to import rice, sugar, onions, garlic and fish.