Interview: Rachel Lomibao

How can the agricultural sector compete in genetically modified (GM) food production?

RACHEL LOMIBAO: Out of the 2.52m ha allocated for corn in the Philippines, only about 41% is hybridised. Of this number, only 67% is allocated to a biotech version combining insect and glyphosate tolerant traits. This means there is still opportunity to increase our corn production by further converting the areas currently planted to conventional corn and open-pollinated varieties. Biotechnology is a powerful tool in modernising the Philippine agriculture sector because it helps address prevalent concerns of farmers – in terms of productivity – by making sure crops are protected and farmers do not need to heavily rely on labour for farming, especially given the growing scarcity of workers.

It has been 40 years since hybrid corn was introduced locally. Considering the Philippines has only had a 41% hybridisation rate, we can see that adoption has been slow. Two major factors have impeded the change to hybrids; attaining capital and market access. Even if farmers wanted to use premium hybrids like biotech corn, it would be challenging in terms of access to capital. About 60% of corn farmers rely on informal lenders who charge high interest rates in exchange for collateral-free loans. The government and formal financial institutions need to intervene by providing financing to farmers to replace informal lenders. As for market access, for farmers who come from provinces where there are no corn processing or milling facilities, there is no incentive for them to produce more as there is no accessible market.

In what ways can the Philippines harness the potential of GM seeds and biotech, and what crops are positioned to benefit most from this trend?

LOMIBAO: Biotech should be considered a sustainable alternative technology. Crops like Bt eggplant and golden rice are good examples of this as we have already conducted local trials – although they have yet to reach regulatory approval. Planting biotech crops is a very good method in ensuring integrated pest management. Nowadays, it is difficult to maximise eggplant production because of the prevalence of pests that have developed a resistance to some agro-chemical active ingredients. Bt eggplant can help minimise the potential hazardous effects of too much insecticide spraying, lower production costs for farmers, and help manage insect resistance. Furthermore, disease-resistent crops can help lessen the dependence on labour intensive cultural practices and heavy reliance on fungicides. Before the introduction of Bt corn 13 years ago, the average yield of corn in the Philippines was at 2.5 tonnes per ha, and up to 80% of a Filipino farmer’s crop could be damaged by pests or insects. Currently, the average has gone up to 4.8 tonnes per ha across the country and in major corn growing provinces like Pangasinan or Tarlac, a farmer could harvest as much as 10 tonnes per ha. To maximise the yield of any crop, one needs to ensure that the optimum yield from a particular hybrid is obtained.

There are two major reasons behind the yield gap across the country. The first is fertiliser use and the timing of application. Because farmers do not have enough money for capital outlay, they limit the use of fertiliser to only five bags, instead of using 12-14 bags. Also, most farmers do not apply fertiliser in a way that has the most positive impact on yields. The second reason is proper plant spacing or planting density. The amount of plants placed per ha will enable a farmer to reach optimum yield. A farmer who plants 80,000 plants per ha will get higher yield compared to a farmer who only plants 70,000 plants. Because planting is manual, however, it is difficult to maintain consistency in proper planting density. As such, the private sector, the government and farmers must work together to continue to ensure sustainability of biotech crops in the country. Through this, the country will realise there is still untapped potential in agricultural biotech .