INTERVIEW - Philippines Faces Hurdles in Transgenic Rice Push
Author: Sambit Mohanty
The country is unlikely to commercialise a transgenic variety, resistant to bacterial leaf blight disease, on which it conducted field trials this year, said Leo Sebastian, executive director of the state-funded Philippine Rice Research Institute.
"Unfortunately, the variety in which the transgenic gene was placed is not very popular among the country's consumers, farmers and millers," Sebastian told Reuters in an interview, referring to the IR-72 variety.
"It's not commercially viable. We are trying to find other varieties. You cannot do genetic transformation in every variety. Our scientists have tried transforming other popular varieties but they have so far not been as successful as the IR-72 variety."
The Philippines is Asia's first nation to commercialise genetically modified corn. The Southeast Asian nation, along with India and China, has been aggressively pushing research on a few varieties of genetically modified rice in recent years.
But Greenpeace and other groups have stepped up protests on the government's plan to push biotech crops, saying they threaten consumer health and the environment.
And as the Philippines struggles to find ways of achieving self-sufficiency in the food grain and reduce imports, Sebastian said the country's earlier aim of commercialising genetically modified rice within two years now looked difficult.
"It will be very optimistic now to say two years. The pace at which we are going, it could take up to five years," he added.
The Philippines is not the only nation whose plans have suffered setbacks. China is also facing hurdles and is unlikely to approve a transgenic variety this year, as expected earlier.
"We don't have more field trials planned this year," Sebastian said. "But the International Rice Research Institute is holding trials. If they are successful with varieties acceptable to consumers then we can probably push for commercialisation."
The opposition to GMO food crops is much stronger than for crops such as cotton and feed crops such as corn. Last year, Monsanto Co. dropped plans to introduce the world's first GMO wheat, after worldwide protests.
"Commercialising transgenic corn in the Philippines was much easier since most of those go into animal feed and are not consumed by humans. Cows and chickens are not going to give you a stong opinion," Sebastian added.
Despite domestic rice production rising, the Southeast Asian nation still imports about one million tonnes of rice a year, due to growing demand and population growth.
The Philippines had set a production target of 15.1 million tonnes of rice for this year but erratic weather reduced the crop to about 14.8 million tonnes. The government has set a production target of 15.8 million tonnes for next year.
"We are expecting production to rise next year and the government is aiming to reduce imports, but we are not going to be self-sufficient by next year. We will still have to import," Sebastian said.
He said his institute and other government agencies were trying to boost the country average rice yields, currently around 3.3 tonnes per hectare. Vietnam's average yields are about 4 tonnes per hectare and China's at more than 6 tonnes.
"We are trying to introduce other high-yielding varieties of rice, not necessarily genetically modified," Sebastian said. "We are taking steps to improve management techniques to make our irrigation systems and other things more efficient."