Thursday, August 3, 2006

Environmental group sounds an alarm

What is wrong with this piece of news? What is wrong with this picture?

Not so long ago the Manila Bulletin came out with a story that said that The Fuhua Group of China has broken ground in Silang, Cavite. It launched the “first of 500 technology demonstration and industrial processing sites that will be put up in the Philippines over the next five years.”

The industrial site will run under the Philippine Fuhua Sterling Agricultural Corp. (PFSAC) and is part of what is called a programmed production from a corn-sorghum facility from which will come ethanol and other by-products such as milky starch livestock feed, corn protein, corn oil and amino acid.

According to the article by Melody M. Aguiba, the ethanol supply from the integrated plants is apparently aimed at beefing up China’s ethanol requirement in its intensive drive to shift to cheaper and renewable biofuel as alternative to dwindling crude oil. China is also stepping up production in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

“Renewable biofuel as alternative to crude oil” sounds great at first as compared with fossil fuel with its pollutive effects. Plants are good because they could be grown in big quantities and made to multiply.

And listen to what one of the people behind the project said. “This is a two-hectare processing plant that will have laboratories for hybrid corn and hybrid sorghum. We’ll construct one like this in 500 sites all over the country.”

The article further said: The PFSAC project involves planting of hybrid corn on a total of one million hectares over the next five years that will produce a huge 18.2 million MT of corn after three years. Hybrid sweet sorghum, which yields eight to 10 MT per hectare using planting materials from China compared to the traditional yield of two to three MT per hectare, will also be planted together with the hybrid corn.”
Now, what is this hybrid corn?

Lingkod Tao-Kalikasan (LTK), an environmental group has issued an alarm on this corn. This hybrid corn could be Bt corn. “What at first appears as good news is truly alarming,” says Sr. Aida Velasquez, OSB, LTK coordinator. “In several instances from North to South, farmers got hybrid corn which has turned out to be Bt corn.”

Velasquez warns against “the invasion of GM (genetically modified) crops in the country.” One of the questions she poses is: how adequate and effective are regulatory and monitoring mechanisms for GMOs (genetically modified organisms)?

A lot has been written about and against Bt corn. Scientists have been warning against gene contamination such as what happened in Spain where GM maize was planted on 32,000 hectares of land. Not only was there contamination, the livelihood of farmers was threatened and agricultural biodiversity was undermined.

Velasquez asks: “How can our farmers survive if a lot of the native varieties of crops would be contaminated by GM crops? What will happen to our local varieties of corn, and later, rice, banana, papaya, abaca, eggplant and mongo?”

As the news report said, while the technology demonstration site for corn-sorghum in Silang may involve only 15 hectares, actual corn sites in other parts of the country including Isabela, Nueva Ecija and Camarines Sur may cover 100 hectares in each province.

Planting will soon start and after the harvest, an ethanol plant may be constructed near the corn fields. Investment in each ethanol plant may range from P5 to P6 billion, the report said. All that investment will need infrastructure support for which Fuhua may enter into a build-operate-transfer scheme with the Philippine government. Fuhua, the report said, owns the world’s second largest corn processing facility after the one in the US and supplies 60 percent of China’s huge corn demand.

Big investments may mean big number of jobs but at what cost that the future generations might have to pay because of the environmental disaster that might happen?

Greenpeace has come out with a report titled “The Economics of Bt corn in the Philippines.” It says that Bt corn in the Philippines was designed to be resistant to the Asiatic corn borer, one of the most destructive corn pests hereabouts. Bt corn has also been presented as a practical and ecologically sustainable solution that would help poor corn farmers improve the crop yields.

But, Greenpeace argues, Bt corn is definitely not a biological means of controlling pests and is not ecologically sustainable. Why? Because genetically modified or engineered organisms are unpredictable. When released to the environment, they produce unexpected results that could prove damaging in the long term.

But what is the alternative? Synchronized planting by farmers with adjacent farms is a method that could prevent heavy corn borer attacks per farm. Planting during the dry season is another way. Detasselling is another. This means taking out 75 percent of the tassel (the corn borer’s primary food source) per field.

Bt corn could also result in soil toxification and pest resistance.

Corn is indeed an amazing plant. Corn has fed and moved civilizations, it has been part of society’s evolution since the dawn of time. And now it is no longer just food, it has great potential as fuel. What is worrisome is that with humans tinkering with its biological integrity, it might just strike back.


Watch “Catch a Dream”, a fund-raising concert by Joe Mari Chan for a school that admits poor students who cannot pay. At the Meralco Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 5. For tickets call 4613278, 9394714, 4272703, 0916-3893320, 0927-8488400.