An expert says that GMO banana testing in the country will have a negative impact on our banana export industry. 

By Zac B. Sarian

A world-renowned Filipino banana expert is strongly against the testing in the Philippines of a GMO banana variety developed in a university in Australia, believing this will have a negative impact on the reputation of the Philippine banana in the export market.

Dr. Agustin Molina Jr. checking a hand of Variant 218 for export.

He is Dr. Agustin Molina Jr., who has expressed grave concerns about some government officials and business groups in Mindanao who are excited about supporting the testing of a GMO banana in Davao, as reported in a local paper. This was after Dr. James Dale of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) visited the Philippines offering his GMO variety for testing in Davao. The idea is that the GMO banana will help solve the problem of the virulent Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) that has infected plantations in Davao over the past several years.

Dr. Molina is against the introduction of the GMO banana in the Philippines even if it is only for testing because he believes it will somehow “stain” the image of Philippine bananas for export. Its current markets like Japan and Korea are not receptive to GMO bananas, he says, adding that Ecuadorian Cavendish bananas that are now getting a five percent share of the Japanese market may eventually get the luxurious Asian markets if our bananas are tainted with a GMO reputation.

Admitting that he himself will eat GMO banana because he is scientifically rational, Dr. Molina’s concern is that once the industry tinkers with GMO, the sensitive market will react. What will prevent them from substituting non-GMO bananas from Ecuador? Or what will prevent consumers from buying other, “safer” fruits in place of bananas?

This retired coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region of Bioversity International is the fellow who orchestrated a successful search for a Cavendish tissueculture variant (GCTCV 218) from Taiwan that is proving to be tolerant to the virulent Fusarium wilt TR4 disease. Variant 218 is now being tissue-cultured by the millions by the likes of Dole Philippines, Lapanday, and other big players. And it is now thriving even in areas previously totally wiped out by Fusarium wilt TR4.

Dr. Molina believes that instead of the government institutions focusing on testing the GMO variety, they should put their money in multiplying the proven Variant 218 to supply the requirements of the smallholder banana farmers who don’t have the laboratories to produce their own planting materials. It is true that the Department of Agriculture earlier ordered 1.3 million tissue-cultured seedlings from Lapanday for distribution to smallholder banana farmers in Mindanao, but that is just good for 650 hectares. It is estimated that 3,000 hectares owned by smallholder farmers were earlier infected by Fusarium wilt TR4.

Fruits of Variant 218 at the packing facility.

The GMO banana was hailed as a monumental breakthrough by Western media and researchers alike. The Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN have bannered the development of the GMO banana, making it appear as the first TR4-resistant variety in the world. Why the hype? Is it possible that the research institutions would like to get the attention of donors for more funds for further research, Dr. Molina wonders.

He says that the GMO banana will not provide an immediate solution to the virulent TR4 problem in the Philippines. Before it becomes commercially available, it may probably take more than ten years. And it is not even certain if the new variety will produce desirable qualities like high yield, acceptable eating quality, good hand formation, and other characteristics.

Dr. Molina suggests that the GMO banana be first tested more thoroughly in the Northern Territory of Australia where TR4 has long destroyed the Cavendish industry in that region before it is tested in other countries. He has the credentials to make a credible assessment of the problems confronting the banana industry, not only in the Philippines but worldwide. A plant pathologist who finished his studies at UP Los Baños and Pennsylvania State University, he worked for 10 years as a senior scientist at Chiquita Brands International, the biggest banana company in the world. He was also the coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region for Bioversity International, an NGO that is focused on the banana industry. Although retired from Bioversity, he continues to work for the industry as expert-consultant, guiding R&D of agencies like PCAARRD and the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) of the Department of Agriculture.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s February 2018 issue.