In a series of meetings in the Philippines, a US geneticist has spoken on the possible adverse impacts of genetic engineering, challenging the claims of US biotech companies and the US government that genetically modified corn is safe.


May 2000

Davao City, Philippines: The claims of US biotech companies and the US government that genetically modified corn (Bt-corn) is safe have been challenged by a US geneticist at seminars in the Philippines.

Said Dr Doreen Stabinsky, a geneticist from the California State University at Sacramento: ‘Just because it is from the US doesn’t mean it is safe.’

Stabinsky said that in the United States, where the multimillion-dollar biotech industry kicked off, ‘there has been no testing done for long-term effects on human health or the environment’.

‘The biotechnology companies have poured billions of dollars into genetic engineering of new seeds,’ said Dr Stabinsky. The industry has close links with the US government.

‘This explains why GMO (genetically modified organism) products are in the US market and not necessarily because they have been proven to be safe,’ said Stabinsky, who has been studying the potential ecological impacts of genetic engineering for the last 11 years.

Filipino scientists advocating the adoption of the technology maintain that ‘the US is planting Bt crops on a large scale, so why can’t we?’

Stabinsky said links between health effects and consumption of GE food can’t be made because products are not labelled according to whether they contain GMO or not.

‘Without public debate, the US government decided in 1992 that GE foods will not be labelled,’ said Stabinsky. ‘How can you study their impact on human health if you don’t know what people are eating.’

Recent studies suggest genetic engineering can create foods that cause allergic reactions that could lead to shock or even death. In Europe, where the ‘No to GMO’ position is strong, many countries opted for proper labelling of products. Proposed bills in the Philippines at both the Lower House and the Senate critical of genetic engineering are on the discussion table.

‘We can’t always say that if something is new, something from the laboratory or something from the US, that’s necessarily progress,’ she said. ‘If it will harm humans or the environment, that is not progress.’

Stabinsky, who spent five months in the Philippines studying the genetic engineering of rice, warned that the potential hazards to humans are greater here than in her country.

‘Large amounts of corn harvested in the US are fed to animals and only a small portion is consumed as snack foods like corn chips,’ she said.

‘In contrast, in the Philippines corn is a staple cereal for many Filipinos,’ said Stabinsky. About 20% of the total population or 17 million Filipinos eat corn as staple food, especially in Visayas and Mindanao.

‘Even if you don’t feed Bt-corn to people, they could contaminate local and open- pollinated varieties of corn intended for human consumption,’ said Francis Morales, coordinator of the Mga Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Ikauunlad ang Agham Pang-agrikultura (MASIPAG) Eastern Mindanao.

Corn pollen, carried by wind, insects or birds, could travel long distances and contaminate non-Bt-corn plants. And with an average farm size of only 1.5 hectares, farm condition in the Philippines increases the likelihood for Bt crops to contaminate non-Bt cornfields. Bt-corn contains gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which makes this transgenic crop produce an insecticide in every cell to ward off corn borers.

Stabinsky also said Bt crops have a great potential to cause harm to the soil ecology. Soil is home to various beneficial insects and microorganisms which are important for soil fertility.

Citing a December 1999 study from the Cornell University, she said researchers found out that the Bt toxin does not confine itself to the corn plant. ‘It went into the soil and stayed there for 234 days.’

‘Soil ecosystems are of fundamental importance to the health of an agricultural system, and we disrupt them at our peril,’ said Stabinsky, who has provided expert testimony on the genetic engineering issue to the Ad Hoc Working Group on Biosafety of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the United States National Academy of Sciences.

The Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) of the University of the Philippines Los Banos, in collaboration with Monsanto’s Agroseed Corporation, has just concluded a field-testing mid-March of Bt-corn in General Santos City despite protests from various sectors.

The IPB has proposed to conduct similar tests in partnership with Dupont’s Hi-Bred Philippines. Monsanto and Dupont belong to the top four agrochemical firms in the world which spent $20 billion over the last three years buying seed companies in a bid to control this crucial resource in the agricultural production system.

Stabinsky also refuted claims of the proponents that Bt-corn will benefit farmers through increased yield and reduced chemical use.

‘If there’s a long-term reduction on chemicals, that would be a benefit. But Bt is a short-term solution,’ she said. ‘And the cost of seeds that are patented and something farmers can’t save for the next planting season, would be high.’

The Bt gene is inserted into the hybrid variety of corn, which needs to be purchased every planting season since second-generation seeds demonstrate at least a 30% reduction in yield.

Stabinsky urged government to adopt the internationally recognised precautionary principle which states that ‘if there is scientific uncertainty on safety for humans and the environment, take the side of precaution’.

Davao City was the last leg of a week-long series of fora and meetings where Stabinsky spoke on the possible adverse impacts of genetic engineering before a multisectoral   audience   in  General  Santos  City,   Polomolok  and   Surallah   in  South Cotabato. Sponsored by MASIPAG, the activities were in collaboration with the Lay Forum Philippines, Justice and Peace of Marbel and Konsumo Dabaw. - Third World Network Features


MASIPAG is a Philippines-based NGO group, ‘Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development’.