What’s behind the BT Corn Tour organized for the Asian Farmers Exchange in the Philippines. 

By Tony Rodriguez

Delegates from nine Asian countries who attended the 2014 Farmers Exchange Program (organized by CropLife Asia, CropLife Philippines and the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines in the country in March 2014) visited a Dekalb Learning Center (DkLC) of Monsanto Philippines Inc. (MPI) and a commercial farm growing Bt corn. Those two sites—the former in Victoria, Tarlac and the latter in Ramos town—were the only Bt corn locales where the 52 delegates got a closer look at the crop that at least two of the countries they represented also hoped to plant in the near future.

BT CORN IN THE COUNTRY – Only the Philippines produces Bt corn in Asia at present. Filipino farmers grow it in about 800,000 hectares (ha) out of the 1.285 million ha grown to yellow corn in the country. The other countries are either awaiting government approval for Bt corn field trials or for commercial production, and, with the exception of Vietnam, are still many years away from what’s happening now in the Philippines.

Monsanto developed five of the eight government-regulated articles or lines, or what are technically known as transformation events, of Bt corn in use in the Philippines at present. The company markets seeds of those cultivars under its brand name Dekalb. Its DkLCs in the major corn producing provinces of the country helped spur the widespread adoption of the first genetically-engineered agronomic crop in the Philippines and Asia, Dekalb 818YG, containing the MON 810 gene from Bacillus thuringiensis in 2005.

Alighting from their bus, the Farm Exchange delegates are immediately drawn to the first Bt corn crop they have seen up close at the Monsanto Philippines Inc. Dekalb Learning Center in Victoria, Tarlac.

MPI’s Technology Development Department (TDD) conceptualized, introduced, and institutionalized the DkLC as a venue for Monsanto field personnel, especially the sales teams, to learn the features, advantages, and benefits of Bt corn technology. In 2007, the TDD opened the Centers to Dekalb customers, business partners, and other stakeholders. This dramatically increased awareness of and appreciation for Bt corn, boosting plantings to an estimated half-million ha by 2009 compared to less than 11,000 ha in 2003. Since 2005, the TDD has established some 200 DkLCs nationwide, several of which have hosted visits by government regulators and farmers from other Asian countries.

MPI leases its DkLC sites of a hectare to two hectares from farmer-cooperators. At Victoria, the 1.5-ha Center is in the 11-ha Bt corn farm of Melencio Maniego, an 86-year-old retiree of the world’s largest aerospace company and leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners, Boeing of the U.S, where he worked for 14 years. The Philippine Air Force (PAF) had sent him and others to learn more about aircraft maintenance from the U.S. Air Force in the late-1970s. Boeing hired him after he left the PAF.

A GOOD EXAMPLE – A widower, Maniego owns a home near the Boeing plant in Seattle and another house for his sons in the U.S. In Victoria’s Barangay Maluid are his house and another one for his daughter. “My daughter refuses to stay in the States,” he says. “I myself come and go as I please, most of the time staying here, especially when it’s winter (in the US while) here, it’s harvest time.”

He used to plant sugarcane on most of his land but became tired of the hassles involved in having harvests of the crop hauled away to the sugar mill. His family owns a total of 21 hectares, including seven hectares that a tenant persists in planting to sugarcane. The rest of the land is devoted to hybrid rice.

“I like Bt corn,” says Maniego. “I once toured the U.S. Corn Belt just to get more acquainted with this crop. After I tried growing it two years ago and saw how profitable it is to produce, I decided my seasons with sugarcane were over.”

Introduced to the Farmers Exchange delegates by MPI Technology Development executive Jasper Manalo, Maniego confessed that he doesn’t actively involve himself in the culture of Dekalb corn. “I have 10 trusted, efficient, and conscientious workers who do all the work, guided by MPI field personnel,” he says. “Aside from their regular salaries, I entitle them to a share of the profits from our crop each season. They also live on my land with their families and avail themselves of space for growing white corn and vegetables for their food.”

Maniego has provided the farm with an irrigation system that has four deep well pumps and a 60-horsepower tractor for land preparation. He’s thinking of procuring precision planters for corn and rice to save on labor costs for planting. “All the technologies that we need to make our agriculture more productive and at par with those of developed countries are available,” he says. “Why not adopt them? I know many Bt corn growers around can well afford them.”

He probably has in mind Ismael Madriaga of Ramos town.

PROSPERING WITH BT CORN – Madriaga plants Dekalb in 10.5 ha, nine of which he rents for 20,000 a year per ha. A progressive farmer who has been growing corn for 16 years, he harvested an average of only four metric tons (mt) per ha with conventional hybrid varieties that needed to be protected from the dreaded corn borer with pesticides that cost 5,000/ha, including expenses for labor.

The three delegates from India (from left) Rubhash Singh Jakhar, Purushotam Chandra, and Balwinder Singh Kang become instant admirers of Melencio Maniego (second from left).

In 2004, he tried planting the first Dekalb YieldGard (YG) Bt corn which was introduced by Monsanto in half of his area. He planted the other half with a non-Bt hybrid to be able to see for himself how the varieties compared. The yields were just about the same but he had to spend for pesticide for the non-Bt hybrid. Weeds were still a problem for both varieties and could not be totally controlled with the mixture of atrazine or gesaprim and 2,4-D that he used.

Then in 2007, a stacked-trait Dekalb variety, Dk-818-RRC2YG, became available. In addition to YieldGard for corn borer protection, the new cultivar was a Roundup-Ready second generation corn (RRC2). The Roundup-Ready technology gives Bt corn farmers effective weed control. Roundup Ready crops contain genes that confer tolerance for glyphosate to the plants. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup agricultural herbicide. Glyphosate kills weeds and non-tolerant plants but not Roundup Ready corn.

With the new variety, Madriaga’s average yield increased to 7.3 mt/ha. The use of Dk-9132-RRC2YG in 2009 boosted this to an average 9.4 mt/ha. Then, in 2011, the newer Dk-9132S Genuity gave him 11 mt/ha.

The 42-year-old farmer’s profits have enabled him to go into other entrepreneurial activities. He now rents out two tractors, a rice thresher, a mobile rice mill, and a corn thresher that he owns to other farmers in Ramos and its neighboring towns. He also finances corn plantings.

Madriaga is also an innovative planter. He doesn’t follow the recommended 60,000 to 70,000 Bt corn plants/ha, but plants 80,000/ha. His cropping system per year consists of two corn plantings and one of rice. He plants his first Bt crop in early November and harvests this in March. In April, he plants the second Bt crop, harvesting this in mid-to-late July, by which time his rice seedlings are ready for transplanting in two to three weeks.

If there’s not much rain, he prepares the land for rice by using the trailing harrows of his Ford tractors. If the fields have been muddied by rain, he uses the tractors’ rotovator. The land preparation period gives time for the cornstalks left in the fields to decompose and serve as soil conditioner. Like Maniego in Victoria, he uses deep wells for irrigating his fields.

Monsanto Philippines Regulatory Affairs lead Gabriel Romero welcomes delegates to the Dekalb Learning Center.

His success as a Bt corn farmer has greatly encouraged other farmers in Ramos, especially those who do not own land but have seen that renting fields for planting to Bt corn is highly viable. This is why he qualified as a MPI Dekalb Ambassador.

AMBASSADORS WHO SHARE EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE – At first just a farmer-cooperator of MPI TDD, Madriaga is now one of the more than 100 Dekalb Ambassadors of Monsanto Philippines in the country’s major corn-producing provinces. MPI instituted its Dekalb Ambassador (DkA) Program in 2010. The DkAs start as the company’s farmer-cooperators, with the most successful of them in terms of yield and farm income graduating into Ambassadors.

The DkAs go out of their way to share their experiences with other farmers in their respective communities, and help impart Dekalb technology by assisting MPI field personnel in conducting teachins and demonstration plantings in cooperators’ fields. They often offer their farms as venues for those activities. They also help convince their fellow farmers to avail themselves of the services of MPI and its DkLCs, and have contributed much to helping their communities prosper with Bt corn.

Madriaga was at the Victoria DkLC to share his experiences with the delegates of the Pan-Asia Farmers Exchange Program as a farmer who has benefited from being a Bt corn grower and his choice of Dekalb seed for planting. The visitors later proceeded to Ramos town to see his cornfields.

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