agricultural biotechnology: the way to go - National Center for ...


Dec 1, 2012 (4 years and 6 months ago)



IN the recently held Technonegosyo (September 4 to 15, 2006) at the Philippine World Trade Center, I was asked:
"How can an ordinary person start a business in biotechnology when it involves too much science?" This was the
reaction I got after I described the product of our company, Vital N biofertilizer, a traditional biotechnology product.

Traditional biotechnology-managing microbes to produce useful products using their innate abilities-dates back
more than 8,000 years ago when people brewed beer and made wine and bread using yeast. What I discussed
was the more than 20-year science of the microbe that makes Vital N a biofertilizer-a summary of what it can
naturally do to increase crop production by at about one ton per hectare at less cost.

Modern biotechnology, unlike traditional biotechnology, changes the innate ability of an organism through a
technique called genetic engineering to improve its performance or endow it with new capabilities. Modern
biotechnology is exemplified by the much-maligned genetically engineered Bt corn (GMO in popular parlance) -
developed by transferring into the corn the innate ability of a soil microbe to fight the destructive corn borer. Bt corn
saves farmers the cost of buying and applying a chemical pesticide and can increase corn production by about one
ton per hectare.

Vital N, a traditional biotech product and Bt corn, a modern biotech product, represent the parallel developments in
biotechnology in the world today. These developments present opportunities to us as we pursue biotechnology as a
tool for national development.

This century we shall see an expanded role for agriculture. Agriculture will produce not only food and clothing but
also medicine, cosmetics and energy with the corresponding challenge for sustainability. This is a real challenge
because conventional agriculture is environmentally degrading; tilling the soil makes the top soil vulnerable to loss
from strong winds and surface run-off. The negative impact of chemical pesticides on human health and biodiversity
is well-documented. The bigger challenge is that majority of our farmers remain poor and are trying to leave the
farm to seek better life elsewhere. Thus, for agriculture to flourish, new strategies must be adopted.

There must be an intent to make farming more attractive economically, as mandated by the Agriculture and
Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA) of 1997. It is shocking to note that rice farming, despite adopting all improved
technologies, would bring in only a maximum profit of P20,000/hectare/season with the same amount invested.
Considering that majority of farmers do not have P20,000 to invest to attain high yields, one can imagine how much
less farmers have to live on. Given the hype on Jatropha (tuba-tuba among the Tagalogs or tawwa-tawwa among
the Ilocanos) for energy farming, the question should be, "How much will farmers be earning if they produce
Jatropha seeds?" Will the farmer make more money compared with coconut farming since coconut can also
produce biofuel? What benefit will accrue to him to join a monopolistic market since unlike coconut no other market
exists for Jatropha?

Aside from energy farming, new trends are providing us new product options for farming. A new agricultural product
is herbal medicine and natural ingredients used in food and cosmetics manufacturing. The world market for herbal
medicines and natural ingredients has been increasing in the last decade. Herbal medicine is a $56-billion industry
where China and India lead. The biggest buyer is Europe. Natural ingredients for cosmetics are worth about $10
billion whereas the estimate for natural food ingredients including organic foods is about $200 billion. The growth of
the natural ingredients industry is said to be promoted by a growing consciousness for healthy lifestyles, a backlash
against synthetic chemicals, resistance to GMOs or genetically engineered crops, concern over food origin,
sustainability and fair trade.

The Philippines is naturally endowed to join the natural ingredients industry. We have more than 300 known
medicinal plant species; more than 90 percent of coral species are found in our seas; and thousands of microbial
species are everywhere. While lifestyle trends may be fleeting and resistance to GMOs may fade away, the
accumulation of synthetic chemicals in the environment remains a big threat. Aside from safety concerns, the
increasing cost of synthetic chemicals is also a concern. The increasing cost is due to escalating energy cost. In
time, energy problems will only heighten since cheap energy from fossil fuel is no longer an option. Energy and its
wise management shall be the main consideration for manufacturing technologies. Biological systems are the most
efficient users and converters of energy. At the same time, they can be managed to stem pollution.

Thus, crop production is being eyed to replace some manufacturing processes like the production of medicines,
food and cosmetic ingredients. In addition, some countries are now legislating the demise of chemical ingredients in
food. The continuing verification of centuries-old claims on the efficacy of medicinal plants by scientific studies also
helps entrench medicinal plants in the arsenal of modern medicine.

Science on herbal plants started with the survey done in colonial times in the country, but scientific studies on
efficacy and safety were promoted with the Department of Science and Technology's (DOST) major support for the
National Integrated Research Program on Medicinal Plants (Nirpromp) of the Philippine Council for Health Research
and Development(PCHRD). Nirpromp is a multiinstitutional research program participated in by scientists of the
University of the Philippines headed by Dr. Nelia Maramba of the College of Medicine.

Initially triggered by the desire to bring down the cost of medicine for our people, these same studies can now be
our key to the lucrative natural ingredients industry. Importing countries prefer that beneficial claims for herbal
medicines are supported by scientific studies. But will our farmers benefit? Current prices of medicinal herbs
indicate that farmers' incomes should improve.

Dried banaba leaves are currently sold at P25/kg and a well-tended farm should be able to produce at least four
tons per year, according to the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB) of the Department of
Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The Department of Agriculture (DA) through its Biotechnology
Program has decided to promote this option for farmers.

Aside from natural ingredients, another opportunity is the production of bio-based agri-inputs, not only for
supporting the local production of natural ingredients but also for world agriculture. For more than 25 years, various
research institutions like the BIOTECH, UP Los Baños, Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), Leyte State University (LSU,
previously Visca), Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), and Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) have
developed biocontrol agents, biofertilizers and bioenhancers to promote crop production. Our own company has
started bringing these products in the market. The interest being generated by our product in other countries
indicates the dearth of such products in the world market.

How about modern biotechnology-where should we go? As we promote increased agricultural production, more
efficient environment-friendly technologies such as the reduction of chemical agri-inputs should be a goal. The use
of the bio-based agri-inputs mentioned above is one option. Another option is offered by modern biotechnology-the
use of genetically engineered crops such as Bt crops that require less or no chemical pesticide.

Furthermore, there are technical problems for which only modern biotechnology can provide lasting solutions. For
example, no agri-input can help solve the virus diseases that continue to plague the rice, abaca, tomato and
papaya production. Hence, for this particular problem, the best solution is genetically engineered crops.

The PhilRice is currently working on genetically engineering a tungro-resistant rice; the Fiber Development Authority
(FIDA) with technical assistance from the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (NIMBB) of UP Diliman
and Department of Horticulture at UP Los Baños, is working on virus-resistant abaca; and the Institute of Plant
Breeding (IPB), UP Los Baños, a virus- resistant papaya and multivirus-resistant tomato. The IPB is also
developing a fruit borer-resistant Bt eggplant and has genetically engineered a long-shelflife papaya that will soon
come into the market in about three years.

Another opportunity often overlooked is the competitive advantage offered by the transparent, manageable science-
based regulatory system for the commercialization of products of modern biotechnology, established by the
Department of Agriculture through its Administrative Order 8 of 2002.

This policy makes it easier for business to bring in safe and beneficial genetically engineered crops. While there is
an opportunity in the local market, the bigger opportunity is to produce for the world seeds of genetically
engineered crops as well as pharmaceuticals from genetically engineered plants. Genetically engineered
pharmaceuticals account for more than 90 percent of the $60-billion world modern biotechnology industry.
Currently, these pharmaceuticals are produced in cell systems that are difficult to manage. Hence, there is an
increasing trend toward their production in crops.

For the Philippines to develop using biotechnology, appropriate government policies and initiatives must continue to
be put in place. Policies to promote biotechnology industries must be adopted. The process of bringing into the
market technologies developed by public R&D institutions must be hastened by removing policies that stall
privatization of these efforts, and adopting incentives and systems for a closer working relationship among public
R&D scientists and business people.

Privately led efforts like the Technonegosyo and Biotechnology Summit must be supported. After all, the world
modern biotechnology industry was started by entrepreneurial scientists from public and private R & D institutions.

By Saturnina C. Halos, Ph.D. 06-October-2006 BusinessMirror