Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
This week in Manila, hunger strikers ended a month long fast protesting the commercialization of genetically engineered Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn in the Philippines. "We have done everything that is humanly possible to stop the poisoned seeds of genetically modified corn from being planted in our farms," stated Roberto Verzola, one of the remaining hunger strikers. "By this time, the seeds are being distributed to farmers. Three months after they are planted, the plants will bloom. There will be cross-pollination with the local corn variety which will contaminate our fields with the toxic corn," he explained.
In December 2002, the Philippine Department of Agriculture approved the planting and sale of YieldGard, Monsanto's Bt corn, in spite of risks of genetic contamination within one of the world's most biodiverse plant communities. Hunger strikers report that the agriculture department has a contract with Monsanto to buy the genetically engineered corn seeds for free distribution to farmers.
The strikers wanted the Philippine government to declare a moratorium on genetically engineered corn until the safety, environmental, health and economic concerns had been resolved. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo Jr. declined to meet with the strikers, who issued a sharply critical statement: "You have failed us, Madame President. Once the contamination of our local corn varieties by the Bt toxin gene spreads, your presidency will leave a legacy of poisoned corn to our children, grandchildren and all subsequent generations of Filipinos."
Lying on cots in a traffic circle in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, the hunger strikers consumed only water and juice since April 22. Four women and five men began the strike, but physical symptoms had forced all but three to stop their fast. The strikers are affiliated with the Network Opposed to Genetically Modified Organisms! (NO GMOs!) and represent the Philippine Greens, Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka, (PAKISAMA ) Ecological Society of the Philippines) and Earth First!
Bt corn contains a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Another form of Bt is also used as an insecticide spray by both conventional and organic farmers. Bt sprays degrade rapidly in the environment; however, a genetically engineered plant can produce Bt toxin in every cell. As a result, pests are continually exposed to low doses, increasing the chances of developing resistance and reducing effectiveness of Bt sprays. The safety of human consumption of plants with Bt toxin is also controversial. Scientists around the world have called for more studies on the potential human health impacts of Bt crops.
Mark Cervantes, one of the hunger strikers, urged, "We should not let transnational corporations (TNCs) make the decision about what we should eat; this decision is only ours to make." Philippine activists see the issues of genetically engineered crops, biosafety and biopiracy in their genetically diverse environment as shared by many countries of the global South. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to corporations seeking to sell patented crops or to find species to patent--both at a cost to local communities.
Before the hunger strikers began their fast, the battle against Bt corn in the Philippines had been underway in the fields, the courts and the national Congress. In August 2001 farmers joined by SEARICE pulled up Bt corn growing in a Monsanto field trial. Activists resorted to direct action after Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred were sued for illegal field tests of Bt corn in 1999 and 2001. In both cases the companies failed to appear in court until the field trials were over, the crops harvested, and the case was moot.
Several bills seeking to regulate genetically engineered crops were submitted to Congress but have not made progress. "Since October 2001, the bills have not moved an inch in Congress because Monsanto and AGILE (a lobby group receiving U.S. aid funds) desperately blocked their passage," complained Rafael Mariano of the KMP, the largest peasant/farmers union in the Philippines. The resolutions seek to limit introduction of GE crops and investigate corporate influence over the government approval process for Bt corn. "Even the bill that requires mandatory labeling of all GE crops and food products is being blocked by corporate interest groups and AGILE," Mariano stated.
For information on the hunger strike: http://www.bwf.org.
Sources: Hunger Strike Against GM Food Ends Today, Gulf News, Manila, May 21, 2003; Monsanto, Agile blocking Anti-Bt corn Bills, News Release, May 19, 2003; Hunger Strike Against GM Crops in the Philippines, NO GMOS! Press Release, April 22, 2003; Hunger Strikers Meet Tiglao, More talks With Lorenzo Set, Press Release, SEARICE, May 13, 2003; Biopiracy, GMOs and Resistance in the Philippines, SEARICE, http://www.spectrezine.org/resist/Neth.htm.
Contacts: Network Opposed to Genetically Modified Organisms! (NO GMOs!) and Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE); Units 208/331 Eagle Court Condominium, 26 Matalino Street, Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines; phone (63-2) 922-6710, (63-2) 433-7182; fax (63-2) 922 6710; email firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site http://www.searice.org.ph; PANNA.