Here in Asia, we’re starting to ask something similar: Which came first, the chickening out or the GM eggplant?
There’s a clear answer to our version. In India, the government is chickening out. In the Philippines, where I farm, we’re embracing biotechnology and its benefits.
Earlier this summer, the Philippines announced that it will allow the commercialization of genetically modified eggplants, which Filipinos call “talong.” Seeds are expected to go on the market for the 2011 growing season. This approval means that the Philippines will become the first country in Asia – and probably in the world – to let farmers grow GM talong.
India could have led the way. In February, however, officials ignored the recommendations of a scientific panel and refused to approve GM eggplant, which Indians call “brinjal.” They didn’t explicitly reject this crop–they called for more study–but their decision to delay was widely interpreted as surrendering to Greenpeace and other anti-biotech pressure groups.
“India has a desperate need for agricultural biotechnology,” wrote Rajesh Kumar, a farmer who grows brinjal, in the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal. “By rejecting the Gene Revolution … the Congress-led government in New Delhi now threatens the ability of Indian farmers to increase the yield, quality, and safety of the food they produce for their more than one billion fellow citizens.”
Thankfully, the Philippines will travel a different path. Talong is a staple crop for us. It’s our single most popular vegetable, accounting for about 13 percent of our vegetable acreage. I don’t grow talong as a commercial product, but I do plant it in my backyard because it’s good to serve fresh with fish and rice.
Talong is vulnerable to a major pest called the shoot borer, which is the larva of a white moth. Left uncontrolled, shoot borer infestations can cause devastating losses for farmers. The miracle of biotechnology allows GM talong to fight off shoot borers naturally. As a result, farmers cut their pesticide use and production costs. Consumers realize the advantages of greater abundance and lower prices.
There’s an environmental edge as well. By producing more food on existing farms, we reduce the incentives to convert wilderness into cropland. This is critical in the Philippines because we face alarming levels of population growth and we’re running out of room for agriculture.
GM talong will help us do more with the farms we already have.
I don’t understand why anybody would oppose biotechnology. My own experience with GM crops has been incredibly positive. I grow GM corn and other crops on ten hectares in San Jacinto, a little north of Manila.
Access to biotechnology has transformed my life. The increased productivity allowed me, as a widow, to send my three sons to college. I doubt this would have been possible without GM seeds.
So GM crops deliver more than an agricultural improvement. They are engines of economic mobility.
Unfortunately, farmers in many countries don’t have this same opportunity. Their lack of access has nothing to do with science or safety and everything to do with politics, as India’s disappointing experience with GM brinjal shows.
India really ought to know better. It already permits the growth of GM cotton. Farmers have enjoyed the benefits of its much higher yield.
Women may have gained the most, according to a new study by the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. In India, cotton harvesting is traditionally a female activity. Since the introduction of GM cotton, women who pick in these fields have seen their income rise by 55 percent.
“Overall, [GM] cotton enhances the quality of life of women through increasing income and reducing ‘femanual’ work,” said Arjunan Subramanian, a professor at Warwick.
Men, for their part, spend less time spraying pesticides. This leaves them more available for family chores and activities.
I salute the government of the Philippines for keeping an open mind on biotechnology and making sure that farmers can use it.
Let’s hope that officeholders in India and elsewhere also choose to accept GM eggplants and other biotech crops–and quit chickening out in the face of progress.
Rosalie Ellasus is a first-generation farmer, growing corn and rice in San Jacinto, Philippines. Rosalie allows her farm to be used as a demonstration pilot for smallholder farmers to visit and learn from. She currently serves as President of the Philippine Maize Federation and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network. www.truthabouttrade.org