People in the cities, particularly Manila are probably only aware of one staple: rice. But what we don’t know is that our country has a secondary staple, white corn which is consumed on a regular basis mostly in the Visayas and Mindanao.
Growing up in Manila, I was never aware that ground white corn is consumed on a day to day basis or as a substitute to rice in times of shortage and when rice prices soar. I just knew that my mom used white corn for some traditional snacks or we eat it straight from the cob.
As a staple, farmers who plant white corn are quite protective of the varieties they plant, breed and trade with each other. Though yellow corn has exceeded the area planted to white corn, a lot of farmers still prefer plant to white corn due to the higher price it fetches as well as the better taste and eating quality it has.
In 2002, the government has approved the planting of genetically modified yellow Bt corn (MON81) in the Philippines and since then, 4 other kinds of GM yellow corn (NK603, MON89034, Bt 11 and GA21) were approved for commercial planting. It has been claimed that GMOs are “safe” for human consumption when there is still no scientific consensus on their long-term safety. Greenpeace has also warned the government that any deliberate release of GMOs into the environment, either through field testing or commercial growing will and contaminate our non-GM crop varieties.
More than 10 years after the approval to plant GM yellow corn in the country, Greenpeace tested for the presence of GMOs in white corn in Visayas and Mindanao. Corn grits were purchased from public markets and corn seeds given by farmers sent to a laboratory for testing. What we discovered was very alarming: the corn grit samples had GM contamination of up to 40%. These samples show contamination both from Monsanto’s GM insect resistant (Bt) corn (MON810) and GM herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready) corn (NK603).
Incidentally in the course of the study, Greenpeace learned that there is GM white corn being sold in the market and used by farmers. When Greenpeace checked with the Bureau of Plant Industry, we found that the BPI does not know of the existence of this GM white corn variety, sold by a multinational seed company, as this was not in the national seed industry council registry. This chance discovery raises several questions as to the capacity of the government to regulate GM crops and the responsibility of seed companies to inform the regulatory body and national seed industry council of the seeds they produce and sell.
We don’t know how the contamination happened, whether it was due to cross pollination or mechanical mixing with the GM white corn which is not registered to be sold, or if it is due to GM yellow corn cross pollinating or mixing with white corn. This needs further scientific investigation. Neither do we know the extent of contamination in the Philippines since this testing just provides a snapshot of the Philippine’s total white corn production. What is clear from this testing is proof that contamination is real and that GM crops, once released to the environment, cannot be controlled. This contamination should be investigated by the Department of Agriculture, including the unauthorized sale of GM white corn, which is an infraction of the law. Authorities, seed companies and communities should take all necessary measures to stop this contamination. The Department of Agriculture is promoting white corn as a healthier and substitute staple for rice. If it is laced with GMOs, there is no assurance that white corn is a healthier option than rice.
Speaking of rice, our main staple, is under threat from GM contamination with the on-going field trials of GM ‘Golden’ rice and the plans to apply for commercialisation. As the white corn study shows, contamination can happen. For rice, there are well documented examples of contamination of conventional rice by experimental GE rice in the US and China. To reiterate, there is no scientific consensus on the food safety of GE crops as recently articulated by 230 European scientists in a public statement.
As rice consumers, let us protect our rice from GE contamination and join the growing movement to stand up for our rice. Let us call on our government to stop field testing GM ‘Golden’ rice. Let us unite in calling for a moratorium on the cultivation of GM corn. Together let us protect and keep our staple food GM free. Let us work together to advance ecological farming which can provide us with healthier food.
Daniel Ocampo is Sustainable Agriculture and Genetic Engineering campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia based in the Philippines. Follow his tweet updates via @dannyoph.