Asia entered a new phase in the acceptance of genetically modified (GM) crops last week, when the government of the Philippines endorsed the planting of GM corn. When it is grown next summer, the new variety will be the first transgenic staple food crop to make it into farmers' fields anywhere in Asia.
Several Asian countries, including India, Indonesia, and China, have started growing transgenic cotton; in addition, genetically altered tobacco and nonstaple foods, such as peppers, have been allowed here and there. But not a single country had yet approved cultivation of a major food crop equipped with new genes. Last week, however, the Philippines' Department of Agriculture gave the green light to YieldGard, a corn variety developed by seed giant Monsanto and approved in the U.S. that carries a foreign gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt helps ward off the voracious corn borer and should help bring down pesticide use, says Monsanto. The decision had been hotly contested by anti-GM protestors and even some provincial governments, and a trial site was uprooted last year.
Philippine researchers had studied Bt corn for years. In 1997, plant breeder Eduardo Fernandez of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños carried out the first greenhouse trials with the new corn in collaboration with Cargill Seeds, which was later bought by Monsanto. With approval of the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines, Fernandez and others subsequently carried out a series of field trials, first at one site in Mindanao and later at 16 other locations. But only in April of this year did the government adopt a regulatory framework that would allow it to decide whether to approve transgenic crops.
The government made an "excellent" decision, says Gurdev Khush, who recently retired from the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, and is now an adjunct professor at the University of California, Davis. "It will benefit the corn growers as well as the country as a whole, as it will help increase the corn production," Khush says. Khush predicts that "Philippine farmers are likely to accept GM corn in a big way." YieldGard's approval will also pave the way for expanded research and introduction of other GM crops, including improved rice varieties, Khush says.