Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam—The Philippines’ experience in adopting modern agricultural biotechnology can be a model for other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

By Edd K. Usman

Any of the remaining seven ASEAN members that may decide to commercialize Bacillus thuringensis (Bt) corn does not have to start from zero.

Of the 10 members of the ASEAN, only three so far have adopted and planted biotech crops: Bt corn for the Philippines; Bt cotton for Myanmar; and Bt corn for Vietnam, Dr. Randy Hautea, global coordinator of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), noted.

Currently, the rest of the ASEAN members—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand—import and consume GM crops, though they are not yet really into agri-biotech, said Hautea, who also predicted that in five years, more members of the regional bloc would get into the commercialization of GM crops.

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An official of Syngenta Vietnam, Kumar Datta, general director and commercial unit head (second from right) leads the distribution of gifts for Vietnamese farmers who adopted genetically modified (GM) corn in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province.

The Challenge of Food Security

In his lecture, Hautea laid down the challenges that Asia is facing in terms of agriculture, particularly food security. He noted that the increasing world population poses a big challenge to food security, including the question of how to produce additional food without using more land, water, labor, nutrients, and energy. The world is nearing the use of 15 percent of the Earth’s surface that can be sustainably farmed; climate change is bringing about new challenges, including water shortages and its increased salinity.

In addressing this host of challenges, Hautea acknowledged the vital role of technology. “But we are not saying that biotechnology is the only solution,” he emphasized.

Modern biotechnology presents us with huge opportunities to improve crop production. Improved technologies and innovation is the key, Hautea added; the global demand for GM/biotech crops is growing, particularly in developing
countries, and the international biotech crop trade is increasing in tonnage, types of products, and number of markets.

The Philippine Experience as a Model for Other Countries

Hautea expressed his belief that the “Philippine experience (with Bt corn) can be a model for ASEAN members” at the recent Syngenta ASEAN Media Workshop in Ho Chi Minh City (the capital of the former South Vietnam). The workshop brought together the company’s officials and regional experts to update ASEAN journalists on recent developments in biotechnology in the region, which is on the verge of having a single borderless market after the ASEAN Economic
Community (AEC) is established by December 2015.

The Philippines already adopted plant science technology, or biotechnology (biotech)—also dubbed genetic modification (GM), genetic engineering (GE), or transgenic—in 2002. In 2003, Filipino farmers started propagating Bt corn, but only after stringent testing, Hautea said, in conformity with the regulations and guidelines set forth by the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP).

It can be recalled that the Philippines established the NCBP on October 15, 1990 through Executive Order No. 430 in response to the worldwide concerns on the “impact of the new technologies on health, agriculture, chemical and pharmaceutical, and environmental and natural resources.” The secretary of the Department of Science and Technology is them NCBP’s permanent chairperson.

Among the functions of the NCBP are the identification and evaluation of potential hazards attendant to GE experiments or the introduction of new species and genetically modified organisms (GMO), and recommending measures to lessen these risks.

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Hardeep Grewal, head of Asia Pacific Corn of Syngenta, stands in a GM corn field in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, southern Vietnam, as he speaks about agri-biotechnology

Syngenta chose Ho Chi Minh City as the venue for the media conference as the Vietnamese government recently entered the world of GM crops, approving the mass planting of corn borer-resistant GM corn. Notable names from Syngenta Asia Pacific were present, including Kumar Datta, general director and commercial unit head of Syngenta Vietnam, who discussed “Agriculture and smallholders farming in Vietnam.”

Also present was Eddie Chew, head of Corporate Affairs, ASEAN, who discussed “Agriculture in ASEAN,” and Hardeep Grewal, head of APAC Corn, who discussed “Corn: Improving productivity of smallholders in Asia.”

The third ASEAN country to adopt agri-biotechnology, Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) gave the green light after the testing of five GM corn varieties: BT11, GA21, MON98034, NK603, and TC1507. Their sources for seeds of the approved corn varieties’ mass farming are Syngenta and Dekalb.

Vietnam’s minister of agriculture has called for the production of biotech corn to reduce the importation of maize. The ASEAN member’s corn imports from January to July 2015 climbed to US$ 856 million, an increase of 42 percent in volume and 25 percent in value compared to the same period in 2014.

On the last day of the forum, Syngenta brought the participants to Ba Ria-Vung Tau, a southern province of Vietnam, site of the experimental fields for the corn borer resistant Bt corn, Syngenta’s Mir162 variety. Vietnam needs around 1.5 million tons a year of maize as feeds, but produces only 1.1 to 1.2 million tons annually.

The Filipino representative discussed “The role of technology in agriculture: introducing GM” at the workshop, which was attended by experts and journalists from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, and Indonesia. He cited a 2014 study by Clive James, founder and chairman emeritus of ISAAA, which showed that the Philippines ranked 12th among the 19 “mega-countries” cultivating 50,000 hectares or more of biotech crops.

As of 2013, Filipino farmers have planted the yellow maize variety (Bt corn) on 800,000 hectares. Developing a GM crop, he added, takes five to seven years before it can be launched for propagation, a process that takes lots of resources, including money and research hours.

Roehl Briones, senior research fellow of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), agreed with Hautea in asserting that with the Philippine experience, other ASEAN countries have a ready model on which to pattern their experiments on GM crops. They do not have to start from zero; they can just adopt the food security regulations of the NCBP to save them money and time, he said.

Of course, not all countries have the same environment; thus, Hautea and Briones—who was also a presenter at the Syngenta workshop—said that any ASEAN member going into GM adoption would be well advised to conduct research regarding the special needs of their own environment.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s November 2015 issue.