On my island here in the Philippines, farmers still use water buffalo to plow their fields.
In the Camotes Islands—three little islands that sit at the heart of an island nation—we’re like a small country within a big country. We’re rural and poor. We have no industry. We’re removed from big cities like Manila and even further removed from the agricultural technologies that have revolutionized food production around the world.
I’m the only farmer in these parts who owns a tractor.
Yet I’ve learned something important: Technology matters, and even the most isolated and deprived farmers can benefit from it.
I’m not a native of the Camotes Islands. I started traveling here nearly 20 years ago, to check on property owned by my father-in-law. What struck me most was the grinding poverty: It was everywhere.
My first calling is as a Christian pastor. I want to spread the word of God. The more I saw of the Camotes, however, the more I thought the word of God was calling on me to help.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
These words from Matthew 5:16 inspired me in 2010 to move permanently to the Camotes, where I opened a “mission farm.” I still preach the gospel, but actions often speak louder than words—and so the main purpose of my farm is to show my neighbors how technology can make them better farmers.
Camotes is not new to farming or planting corn. It is the staple food of people in this area with most of the corn grown necessary to feed their families. I introduced Bt corn in 2012 to the farmers in Camotes, believing the technology would help farmers improve the lives of their families and communities. That demonstration produced an amazing increase of yield from 600 kg per hectare to 8,000 kg per hectare.
We’ve had GMOs in the Philippines for years, but the farmers who had taken advantage of them lived elsewhere, closer to major urban centers and regions with better infrastructure.
This innovative technology had not yet made it to the Camotes—but the rumors had. Many groups had spread lies about GMOs. Lots of people had hesitation about this technology and even some hostile reaction was seen whenever it was being discussed. Farmers in Camotes were misinformed and often scared.
They had nothing to fear, of course: GMOs are safe. That’s why they’ve gained acceptance in so many places and from so many health organizations and regulatory agencies.
Thankfully, survival trumps pseudoscience—and my mission church turned back the anti-GMO propaganda.
The people of the Camotes are hungry, and their small farms struggle to raise crops in the thin soil. Traditional farming is so inefficient that it often loses money. Many farms fail to function even on the level of subsistence.
As our mission farm demonstrated the ability of GMOs to produce food, skepticism about the technology is diminishing and farmers are interested and ready to adopt.
The yield from Bt corn, with its special defense against insects, is up to 12 times greater than the yields of conventional varieties of corn. For a single farmer, this can mean additional income per year worth hundreds of dollars—a huge sum of money in these parts.
For poor farmers, this is no contest: They want access to new technologies. Seeing is believing—and the farmers of the Camotes now believe in the power of GMOs.
Because corn is a staple food in the Camotes, GM technology has the power to help us approach self-sufficiency and perhaps build agriculture into an industry. Agriculture can be the most practical way to get these people out of poverty. We still have a long way to go, however. We need to mechanize. We need better access to finance. We need more options for selling what we grow.
Moreover, GMO seeds are expensive. They may be worth the higher cost, but they’re still a reach for many of the farmers on my island. Lower prices would make a big difference. If we’re smart enough to edit genes, perhaps we can innovate our way to more affordability.
I could farm elsewhere, growing more crops and making more money. But I have other goals. With my mission farm, I believe there is more to farming life than growing and harvesting your own crops. As a farmer who has access to innovative technologies, I believe it is our moral obligation to help other farmers find a way out of poverty.
During the recent Global Farmer Roundtable and World Food Prize events in Des Moines, Iowa, I had a unique opportunity to raise this point and use my voice to raise the desperate call for help on behalf of the Camotes farmers and others like them around the world. It was very inspiring that the granddaughter of Dr. Norman Borlaug, Julie Borlaug, responded to my question and said, “we will be taking on that challenge, give us two more years.” As a farmer, I will take a promise like this, it is better than nothing.
One day, I hope, most farmers in the Camotes will have tractors that plant and harvest GMOs—and that water buffalo will be quaint reminders of how much progress we’ve made.