An event specially organized for the delegates that came from selected countries all around the globe. 

By Tony Rodriguez

Fifty-two Former-leaders, agricultural educators and policy makers, agriculture officials and personnel, and bio-safety regulators from nine Asian countries were delegates to the Eighth Pan-Asia Farmers Exchange Program recently held in the country.

The delegates were from China (four persons), India (3), Indonesia (6) South Korea (4), Pakistan (3), Thailand (7), Vietnam (7), Taiwan (13), and the Philippines (5).

Started in 2007, the Pan-Asia Farmers Exchange Program serves as a platform for knowledge sharing and exchange for agribiotechnology with emphasis on biotech crops, and on how science-based, functional regulatory systems help access agricultural innovations to boost farm productivity.

The Farmers Exchange delegates and organizers pose with their hosts at Monsanto Philippines’ Dekalb Learning Center in Victoria, Tarlac.

The highest-ranked policy maker in the 2014 Exchange Program was farmer-leader Rao Muhammad Ajmal Khan, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. A Davao City councilor, Danilo Dayanghirang, led the Philippine delegation, whose members included a Davao City council committee coordinator, two Davao farmers, and a Manila-based agri-journalist.

Delegates from Japan were not with the main group because they made a separate trip to the Philippines in February with a large entourage of farmers and agriculture students.

The Program’s main venue was the Holiday Inn and Suites Makati, where the organizers hosted the delegates to a dinner after being welcomed by CropLife Philippines executive director Simeon Cuyson and BCP Biotech Committee chairperson Charina Ocampo. After the introduction of the participants
by their country representatives, CropLife Asia Biotechnology Affairs director Sonny Tababa gave the background on the 2014 Exchange Program and an
overview of its activities.

The first activity was a daylong seminar on agri-biotechnology. CropLife Philippines’ Felipe de la Cruz, Ph.D., presented an “Overview of Modern
Biotechnology” after which the vice-chairperson of the Biotech Core Team of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), Merle Palacpac, delivered the “Introduction to the Philippine Biosafety Regulatory Framework for Agricultural Biotech Crops.

An IRRI researcher answers the Farmers Exchange Program delegates’ questions at a screenhouse for testing Golden Rice.

After the mid-morning break, the head of the BPI Biotech Core Team Secretariat, senior agriculturist Thelma Soriano, spoke on “The Philippine Experience in Communicating Biotechnology and Biosafety.” BCP executive secretary Abraham Manalo followed her with “Current Issues on Biotech Crop Adoption in the Philippines.” An open forum ensued, with Palacpac, Soriano, and Manalo answering questions from the delegates.

INFORMATION EXCHANGES – After lunch, each delegation shared information and updates on their country’s biotech developments. South Korea and Taiwan remain importers of biotech crop products like soybean and yellow corn. Farmers in Pakistan grow Bt cotton and are awaiting their government’s approval for Bt corn trials. India, the country that’s ranked fourth in the world in terms of Bt crop hectarage, has grown Bt cotton for 12 years but has not made much headway for Bt corn because of strong opposition from
anti-genetically-modified organism (GMO) activists.

China produces Bt papaya in addition to Bt cotton. Indonesia approved Bt sugarcane in 2013 and, although the crop’s commercialization has not ensued, that country is more hopeful when it comes to Bt corn. Vietnam will carry out Bt corn field trials in June 2014, with the crop’s commercialization expected in 2015.

Only the Philippines grows Bt corn in Asia at present, with its BPI well-established as the lead agency and single entry point for applications for plants and plant products derived from modern biotechnology. It also enforces regulations on these during the stages in the development of GMOs requiring approvals in the Philippine Regulatory System. The stages, which Palacpac discussed in her presentation, are:

  1. Contained Use: work done under containment in laboratories, greenhouses or screen houses;
  2. Confined Tests: these must follow specific isolation strategies and practice stringent material management to prevent the dispersal or escape of viable reproductive material;
  3. Field Testing: any intentional introduction into the environment of a regulated article for purposes of research and development that may be conducted in a single site or in multiple sites;
  4. Commercialization: the introduction into commerce of a regulated article for use by people or animals.

The delegates to the 8th Pan-Asia Farmers Exchange Program pose for a group picture in front of the Riceworld Museum at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Laguna.

The delegates visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at the University of the Philippines Los Baños in Laguna province on the Program’s third day. IRRI Communications specialist Aileen Garcia welcomed the delegates and showed them an audio-visual presentation of “Rice Science for a Better World.” Then Bruce Tolentino, Ph.D., the Institute’s deputy director-general for Communications and Partnerships, gave “An
Overview of IRRI’s Research.”

After the presentation on “An Overview of Research on Healthier Rice” by Inez Loedin, Ph.D., who heads IRRI’s Genetic Transformation Laboratory (GTL), an open discussion followed with Drs. Tolentino and Loedin. The visitors then toured the Riceworld Museum and Learning Center before being treated to lunch at the Gurdev Khush Hall.

The post-lunch activity for the delegates was a tour of the GTL, the International Rice Gene Bank, and a Golden Rice Screenhouse. Golden Rice is rice modified to include beta carotene to supply vitamin A to millions of children and pregnant women in 122 countries who suffer from vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a type of malnutrition that kills up to two million people
a year and causes 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness. An estimated four-and-a-half million Filipinos suffer VAD. The IRRI has been conducting field trials of Golden Rice, in part to determine its safety both for people and to the environment. According to Dr. Tolentino, its approval for commercialization in the Philippines will take up to two years more.

On the Program’s fourth day, the delegates visited a Dekalb Learning Center of Monsanto Philippines in Victoria, and a commercial Dekalb farm in Ramos, both towns in Central Luzon’s Tarlac province. After lunch at a seafood restaurant in Binalonan, Pangasinan, the group visited the Syngenta Seed Processing Plant in that town. The plant’s key personnel briefed the delegates and led them on a tour of the facility. Syngenta and Monsanto are the developers of the Bt corn technology in use in the Philippines.

After spending the night at a resort in Binalonan, the group returned to Metro Manila, where it held the closing activity at the Manila Hotel. The program
included an evaluation of the 2014 Exchange Program, feedback from the country representatives, presentation of the certificates of participation,
and closing remarks from Director Tababa.

ABOUT THE ORGANIZERS – CropLife Asia, CropLife Philippines, and the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP) were the program organizers. CropLife Asia is one of the eight regional associations of CropLife International, a global federation of agricultural biotechnology companies representing the plant science industry, on whose behalf it addresses international developments in crop protection and agri-biotechnology. The federation promotes approaches that enhance sustainable agriculture for the benefit of farmers, consumers and the environment, and is committed to support the safe and responsible use of its industry’s products in securely providing
a varied, healthy and affordable diet for consumers. It aims to provide transparent information to its stakeholders, welcoming open dialogue with everyone interested in the future of food and farming.

Founded in 1967 as the International Group of National Associations of Manufacturers of Agrochemical Products, it changed its name to the Global Crop Protection Federation in 1996 and further renamed itself in 2001 to CropLife International. The companies sometimes referred to as the “Big Ag” (BASF, and Bayer CropScience of Germany; Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, FMC Corp.,and the Monsanto Company of the U.S.; Sumitomo Chemical of Japan, and Syngenta AG of Switzerland) are CropLife International’s main movers.

CropLife Asia has national chapters in 13 Asian countries and also includes those of Australia and New Zealand. In the Philippines the chapter’s member-companies are Aldiz Inc., FMC Philippines Inc., BASF Philippines Inc., Jardine Distribution Inc., Bayer Crop Science Inc., Monsanto Philippines Inc., Dow Agrosciences B.V. Philippines, C.B. Andrew Asia Inc., Du Pont Far East Inc.,
Syngenta (Philippines) Inc., and Sinochem Crop Protection (Philippines) Inc.

The BCP, on the other hand, is a non-stock non-profit membership organization that’s a broad-based multi-sectoral coalition of advocates for the safe and responsible use and advancement of modern biotechnology in the Philippines. Its members are from academe, farmers’ organizations, industries, church, media, and the science community.

This story appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s May 2014 issue.