Here’s what happened. Researchers affiliated with the University of the Philippines at Mindanao were trying to produce a better talong, also known as eggplant. This is our country’s leading vegetable. A genetically enhanced variety would be a boon to small-scale farmers like me because it would allow us to grow more food at better prices for my family and a hungry planet.
But now we’ve lost this opportunity, at least for the time being, because of a paperwork error.
Apparently the university neglected to post a certain public-disclosure form at a nearby city hall. It is of course essential for the men and women who work on crop research to meet regulatory standards, even when they involve big spools of red tape. Although the supporters of biotechnology have science on their side, we cannot be perceived as cutting corners. It serves the agenda of our adversaries, who are searching for any reason they can find to prevent farmers from taking advantage of this vital tool to grow more and better food.
In the case of the talong crops, it’s a shame that this paperwork blunder couldn’t be worked out. Nobody’s health or safety was ever at risk. Honest mistakes, as this one appears to be, deserve a chance to be corrected. The idea is for paperwork to serve the interests of people rather than the other way around. Bureaucrats occasionally forget this.
Unfortunately, the school’s error gave anti-biotech protestors all the excuse they needed to clamor against the field trials. In the end, the town hosting the test crops destroyed 3,000 plants. Researchers say that it has delayed their work by at least six months.
“It was unjust,” said Eufemio Rasco Jr., the university’s lead scientist. “The moral equivalent of putting a jaywalker before a firing squad. We were punished for a flimsy reason.”
Fortunately, the planting of test crops at other sites means that researchers will gain the data they need in order the commercialize GM talong soon.
I’m hopeful that small-scale farmers in the Philippines eventually will enjoy the opportunity to grow GM talong, which possesses a natural resistance to pests. As food prices soar around the globe, it’s important for farmers to develop sustainable methods of producing as much food as possible. This means we’ll need full access to the same 21st-century technologies used on a regular basis by farmers in the United States, Canada, and South America.
When I started to plant biotech corn a few years ago, I became one of the first farmers in the Philippines to take advantage of this wonderful product. Now farmers all over my country would like to use it because they know it will improve productivity and livelihood as well as reduce health hazards associated with pesticide use.
The commercialization of GM talong also will make it easier to supply nutritious food to hungry people—a constant challenge in the developing world. Talong is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and fibers. We often serve it on our family table, as t’ortang talong (an omelet) or pinakbet (mixed with vegetables).
I’m looking forward to the advent of GM talong. When it comes, I’ll be one of the first to eat it. And I am planning to have one hectare (2.4 acres) of my land planted in talong too.
This particular battle isn’t confined to the Philippines. In India, anti-biotech protestors have succeeded in putting off the approval of GM eggplants (which the Indians call brinjal). In both countries, the future of food is in doubt and so the stakes are high.
We must agree that scientists should be allowed to conduct their tests and perform their analyses—and without irresponsible interference from fearful people who refuse to understand all that we’re missing.
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