Savants to the Rescue

There is social scientific belief, which is common to researchers in the field, that Filipino farmers tale at least eight years to adopt new rice and corn seeds as well as farm technologies, but they eventually embrace new tools and inputs that would raise their yields, improve the prices of their crops or animals, and allow them to pay back creditors, principally loan sharks.

In one interesting study in remote Samar, a Harvard scientist wishing to improve abaca production and teach Waray farmers to earn more found it hard to battle a disease similar to Fusarium wilt that decimates bananas, but learned later that the poor peasants who were supposed to be his wards had the solution to the pest or the deadly fungus. The Harvard prof had to jump the shark as the guys whom he taught hardly knew how to write, employed a technique never contemplated by his betters.

When Dr. Rhodora Romero-Aldemita, executive director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, Inc. (ISAAA) opened a discussion on public perceptions about agricultural biotechnology at the Acacia Hotel on Sept. 23, 2023 as southern Metro Manila was subjected to volcanic smog (vog), she might not have known that the parley would go beyond biotech and lead to exchanges on food security and the savaging of the food excessive importations of the Marcos Jr. regime.

Filipino farmers do not only yearn to more palay, but their experience with Chinese hybrid rice seeds has been disappointing to say the least, putting them at the mercy of a technically Filipino company that distributes seeds that are susceptible to diseases, especially during the cold months for three dog nights. Filipino farmers actually know their business and they would grab half-a-chance to breed their own seeds and keep them for kith and kin as they know the soil and can predict when the amihan and habagat days come. Farmers do not need to be told which genetically-modified palay varieties they must cultivate or whether the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) developed by French Jesuit would suffice to produce more grains in each hill, if water were available.

The chance that agricultural biotechnology would be accepted by farmers is not slim and none. If the farmers were to work on the lab and the plant breeders would till the soil, then they might understand each other. These tillers have been doing science for centuries, succeeding to export rice in the 19th century until the sugar latifundia championed by Nicholas Looney ruined contiguous rice farms maintained by entire families. They have also developed inbred rice varieties without the benefit of listening to lectures by extension workers. They are doomed to farming for life and must produce or perish.

The call by Executive Director Dr. Glenn Gregorio of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) for the peaceful coexistence of organic farmers and biotech farmers fits the "let-it-be ideology" in a country with diminishing hectarage for rice but with a booming demand for Villar's cemeteries, to the greater interest of more bang for the buck, from the dead as well.

Dr. Cleofe S. Torres, principal investigator of the 2022 perception study on biotech, and her team that fanned out to 10 different areas nationwide to do research in the time of COVID-19 deserve to be praised for assembling a team that covered 1,180 respondents compared to only 423 respondents in 2006, and analyzed the data using the stratified random sampling method.

The perception study actually showed there was no huge departure from the level of awareness about biotechnology between 2006 and 2022 and neither was there any significant indication that people grew horns and had two extra legs for devouring chickens and pigs that ate Bt corn, which was already being planted in many areas, including Barangay Ned in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, reputedly the biggest per capita producer in the country until military forces entered the scene.

Curiously, 73% of the respondents in the 2022 survey were aware, and accepted, the need for biotech crops. The figure for those who accept emerging technologies is even higher at 89.3%. Yet, a finer comb would show that there are also holdouts, as 54.6% still maintain that Golden Rice would not produce beta-carotene, 62.1% believe plant viruses would worm their way into the innards of people who consume GE crops despite the indisputable fact plant viruses cannot penetrate animal cell walls. To stun the observer, 53.9% of the respondents believe that only GM crops have genes and the poor, inanimate tomato has no DNA, lycopene and Vitamin C, and are no better than microplastics.