|Keywords:||Philippines; Genetic engineering; Plant breeding; Disease/pest resistance; Rice; Public acceptance; Employment/Income.|
|Correct citation:||Aerni, Ph., Anwander Phan-huy, S. and Rieder, P. (1999), "An Indication of Public Acceptance of Transgenic Rice in the Philippines." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 38, p. 18-21.|
A dilemma in the Philippines
Despite the Philippines being one of the few developing countries that possess national biosafety guidelines, major debates and controversies still surround the issues of transgenic research and its products. There are four main controversies around genetic engineering, relating to: food security, health and ecological risk, ethical aspects, and intellectual property rights (IPRs). The debate takes place not only within the congress, but also in extra-parliamentary groups led by a coalition of NGOs. The debate is also widely covered by the national press.
A specific focus of the debate on genetic engineering is directed towards Bt rice, which contains a gene inserted from Bt, a soil bacterium that produces proteins with a toxic effect on certain pests, such as the rice stem borer. Some of IRRI’s research on Bt rice was conducted in cooperation with the ETH. Research on Bt rice is being financed by international donor agencies such as the Rockefeller Foundation (USA) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development (BMZ).
The survey indicates that a majority of concerned actors agree that genetic engineering can only address agronomic problems in rice production. Nevertheless, this has varied, and sometimes contradictory interpretations. Many policy makers and scientists consider Bt rice to have potential for contributing to future food security in Asia by considerably reducing damage caused by the rice stem borer. They also see Bt rice as an alternative to the increasingly inefficient and ecologically harmful pesticide input. However, NGOs argue that the fundamental problems of the Philippine rice economy, such as the country’s inefficient marketing system and poor infrastructure, cannot be solved by genetic engineering. They also fear that health and ecological risks have been underestimated. Moreover, NGOs oppose not only the technology itself, but also the way in which it is being generated. They object to the top-down approach in which Bt rice research takes place. NGOs suggest a participatory strategy whereby farmers use their traditional knowledge to select and cross their own rice varieties and practice alternative pest management (APM) whereby rice is grown in chemical-free conditions. NGOs’ APM is already practiced in many local communities all over the nation; for example Masipag, a coalition of farmers and scientists, has been undertaking these activities since the 1980s. However, despite the NGOs’ technological alternatives for farmers, the fundamental national problems of inefficient marketing system and poor infrastructure remain unsolved.
Looking at historical precedence
Today’s reception of biotechnology in the Philippines can only be understood against the background of earlier experiences with the Green Revolution, which remains controversial. Introduced during the Marcos regime in 1969, the Green Revolution resulted in dramatic increases in yields. However, as Brian Fegan (and many others who have studied Philippine agrarian history) indicates, such yield increases failed to halt the worsening poverty and social unrest. This is simply because technology alone cannot solve the structural inequalities in any society. In this sense, many Filipinos, especially NGOs, tend to be sceptical of new technologies, and consequently the institutions behind such technology, as indicated by Nicanor Perlas and Renée Vellvé in their NGO review of IRRI in Southeast Asia. Biotechnology is not exempt from these suspicions, especially since the new technology even brings in new dimensions in altering life forms.
The rapid adoption of modern varieties (MVs) in the 1970s generally contributed to vast increases in rice production and lower prices for consumers. The rice was mainly adopted in irrigated areas and favourable rain-fed areas. There was only limited adoption of MVs in marginal regions that are prone to drought and/or flood. A 1998 study by Estudillo and Otsuka revealed that household incomes had shifted from land towards labour. This became a problem when in the rural areas the contribution of MVs to relatively higher labour demand was offset by the widespread adoption of labour-saving equipment. However, the most important reason for the structural change was the development of urban labour markets and the consequent improvement of access to these urban labour markets by farm households, which led to increased earnings from their labour. Estudillo and Otsuka concluded that access to non-farm employment, rather than new agricultural technology, would be more essential for the well-being of farm households.
In its third decade, the Green Revolution has been facing increasing difficulties, such as stagnant rice productivity, environmental problems, and lack of investment. The government’s response is modern biotechnology to produce a new generation of rice varieties. Bt rice is only the first of this new generation of rice breeding. Many new creations, such as drought or flood tolerant or saline tolerant varieties could follow. It is envisaged that these varieties could even contribute to an increase in rice production in marginal regions due to increase in stress tolerance. However, contrary to the government’s own realization that the needs of the marginal regions have to be addressed, the focus of rice production will remain on the so-called key production areas that have the most favourable environmental conditions.
A survey of opinions in the debate
Public acceptance can be understood as the combined attitude of individuals on certain political issues, such as those arising from technological innovations. In general, attitudes towards a new technology depend on the individual’s perception of the technology’s risks and benefits, her/his socially communicated values, and her/his trust in institutions representing these technologies. In turn, the individual’s general perception is formed by her/his sources of information, including friends and opinion leaders in a society. This makes the mass media and the social environment highly relevant.
However, not every individual has a public voice, or is inclined to ‘go public’. Instead, organizations and movements that claim to represent public concerns stage events to voice public opinion. Such demonstrations receive attention from the mass media and hence heighten public awareness. This helps to form public opinion that may influence the political decision-making processes.
Between April and May 1997, a survey was conducted to assess public acceptance of transgenic rice by analysing the political weight and the attitude of the main actors involved in the debate. The political weight was derived by asking the respondents to assess each other’s position and influence on political decision-making, public opinion, and debate on genetic engineering and transgenic rice. Since it is difficult to address ‘the public’ directly, an indirect approach was chosen by addressing the main opinion leaders in the debate. In our survey, the political actors can be seen as those who claim to represent certain segments of society. Even if these actors are not literally representatives of the public, they can at least be considered as ‘opinion leaders’, who influence the development of public opinion and public acceptance.
A survey of 65 respondents from 46 organizations was conducted. This includes: 16 respondents from senior officials from governmental institutions; 18 respondents from leaders of NGOs, farmer organizations, churches and other public interest groups; 4 scientists from the academic world; 8 scientists from IRRI; 8 from the business community; and several respondents from international NGOs, international donor agencies, the mass media and the legislative. Respondents were asked to rate various statements on the importance of the problems in the Philippines rice economy and the potential of genetic engineering for solving them, as well as statements on the risks and benefits associated with the new technology.
Findings in perception patterns
The results of the survey led to the following observations:
The statement with the highest degree of agreement was the doubt regarding the sustainability of Bt rice production if pests manage to break the built-in resistance of the plant. On the other hand, the statement that Bt rice could pose a serious health risk for consumers resulted, surprisingly, in a high level of disagreement. This indicates that unlike in Europe, the Philippine debate does not seem to be driven by fears of health risk. Instead, national and international NGOs are highly concerned about the gravity of ecological risk posed by Bt rice.
In general, the technology itself does not seem to be a matter of concern. Most of the respondents agreed that genetic engineering is just a new tool in biotechnology. There is considerable concern, however, that problems such as market inefficiency and inadequate implementation of biosafety guidelines might impede equitable distribution of the benefits and increase risks. Although a majority of the respondents consider that genetically engineered rice could potentially help to ensure food supply for the big Asian cities, they doubt its ecological sustainability.
Marketing and infrastructure are perceived by a majority of respondents to be the main problems of the Philippine rice economy. In particular, these include unfavourable market conditions, lack of irrigation and post-harvest facilities, poor extension services and an inadequate transportation network. The contribution of genetic engineering in agriculture is seen mainly in terms of agronomic problems such as pest infestation, plant disease, and high use of pesticides. Moreover, as stated in the IRRI Bt booklet: "Average yield losses to stem borers in Asia are often estimated at 5 per cent and vary from region to region. In some areas, stem borers are among the major constraints on yield, while in others they occur at levels too low to cause yield loss." For the Philippines, yield loss due to the rice stem borer is insignificant and pesticide is even unnecessary, as pointed out by K.L. Heong, coordinator of IRRI’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme. Therefore, the public opposition in the Philippines may perceive the benefits involving Bt rice as not proportional to the risks.
There are three major groups of perception with corresponding political weight in the debate:
The first group is dominated by NGOs, some large NGO networks, People’s Organizations (POs) and other public interest groups. This group opposes biotechnology and does not see any potential for genetic engineering in agriculture. They anticipate that this technology will be accompanied by high risks and low benefits. In the survey, respondents perceive this group to have a major influence on public opinion since they seem to be the most active in projecting their opinions through protest activities and other campaigns as they are effective in gathering and transmitting information. However, this group is not considered to be very important with regard to direct political decision-making processes, since they are not members of any legislative body.
The second group includes the majority of government officials and politicians. They have considerable influence on political decision-making processes and, to a certain extent, on public opinion. Moreover, they play an important role in issuing directives and granting financial support. Respondents in this group have high expectations of the potential of genetic engineering for solving the problems confronting the Philippine rice economy. This also reveals a contradiction in their expectation. On the one hand, they agree genetic engineering can only address agronomic problems, yet many of them also expect the technology to solve structural problems. Moreover, this group has a rather ambivalent attitude towards risks and benefits of genetic engineering. Half of them perceive the benefits while the other half perceive the risks. This may be explained by their perception that biotechnology is a tool that enables plant breeders to solve those problems that could not be addressed through conventional technology. At the same time, this group doubts the sustainability of biotechnology since insects will eventually develop resistance to Bt rice, for instance.
The third group consists of scientists of private companies, and national and international research centres. However, it should be noted that scientists from the University of the Philippines are to be found in all three perception groups. The third group’s view of the potential of genetic engineering in agriculture is more modest, although their attitude is definitely positive. While they do not expect biotechnology to solve structural problems, they see the potential of genetic engineering for solving agronomic problems, including those caused by natural calamities. This group is central in the debate on genetic engineering and genetically engineered rice. According to the survey respondents, the third group represents the most important suppliers of information. Furthermore, this group receives financial support from national and international donors. Their influence on political decisions is felt by the respondents to be relatively high, whereas their influence on public opinion is considered to be low. This group does not have direct access to the public; instead, information is gathered from this group by those who have better access to the public, such as the NGOs and the mass media.
Some political implications
The perception patterns show a trend in which the main actors in the debate not only have their own stand on the issue, but also their own position of strength and weakness. The third group, largely composed of researchers, is the most important source of information, and source of research and technology itself, but does not have direct access to the public. The second group, largely composed of government and politicians, is most influential in terms of policy making, allocation of funds and legislation, but needs the cooperation of other actors to implement its plans. The first group, largely composed of NGOs, seems most effective in advocacy, but could not directly participate in legislation and needs information provided by the third group. The perception of genetic engineering of all these groups and their combined consequential actions largely influence the public debate on transgenic rice.
Given the NGOs lack of direct influence in the political decision-making process, their opposition to genetic engineering will most likely not lead to restrictive legislation against genetic engineering in agriculture. This is probably because modern biotechnology is considered the ‘flagship’ of the government’s ‘Vision Philippines 2000’ for national economic growth.
Major budget cuts on research of transgenic rice are not anticipated since this new technology is expected to have potential for all rice growing countries in the world. In our survey, few respondents were in favour of stopping Bt research. Although there is intense debate about the conditions for the successful introduction of Bt rice, and the competitiveness of the alternative projects such as the NGOs’ APM, the argument that all options must be kept open seems acceptable to most of the respondents. However, given the opposition to transgenic rice in the Philippines, IRRI might have to conduct its Bt rice field testing in other countries.
Despite differences in opinions, cooperation among the main actors remains important. According to studies on Philippine NGOs, such as by Alegre, NGOs could positively contribute towards the implementation of the government’s goals of sustainable development and people’s empowerment. Former president Ramos’ efforts towards more intensive government-NGO cooperation have increased the NGOs’ influence on national politics. Moreover, the ambivalent attitude of the second group indicates that, to a certain extent, politicians and government officials do understand some of the NGOs’ concerns. In particular, they agree that the NGO’s APM might be a better strategy for resource-poor farmers. This shows that NGOs and their demands are not simply ignored by the state. However, NGOs still exhibit considerable reluctance to cooperate with government (and with private companies) because NGOs do not wish to sacrifice their autonomy, integrity and flexibility. Additionally, the experience of the Green Revolution most likely still fuels some suspicions.
Beyond national politics, NGOs play a significant role in international development policy. Major international development organizations such as the World Bank are increasingly seeking cooperation with NGOs in the Philippines. Despite some critical reviews of the development role of NGOs, Alegre points out that Philippine NGOs are held to be the most numerous (around 26,000 in 1993) and the most innovative strategists in south-east Asia.
A majority in the study indicated that labelling of transgenic food products and allowing farmers free choice of seeds are important for gaining public confidence. Product labelling may have an effect on consumers’ acceptance, depending on the source and amount of information. While real consumer behaviour cannot be anticipated by the study, the survey indicates that consumer organizations have only a marginal stake in the debate and that health risks are not perceived as very serious among the respondents. Therefore, it is not anticipated that the average urban consumer in the Philippines would reject transgenic rice for fear of serious health risks. This can be considered as a major difference to opposition in industrialized countries.
While stronger opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture may not lead to stricter legislation, it might have consequences on the future strategies in development cooperation in the Philippines since doubts about this technology, or lack of confidence in the responsible institutions, could lead to an increased polarization in the debate and may hinder future cooperation among all the actors.
Philipp Aerni/ Sibyl Anwander Phan-huy/ Peter Rieder
Department of Agricultural Economics at ETH Zurich
ETH Zentrum, Sonneggstrasse 33, CH- 8092 Zurich, Switzerland
Phone (+41) 1 32 53 09; Fax (+ 41) 1 632 10 86; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Aerni, Ph. (1998), Public Acceptance of Genetically Engineered Food in Developing Countries: The case of transgenic rice in the Philippines. Zurich, Switzerland: IAW/ETH Zurich Publications.
Alegre, A.G. (1996), Trends and Traditions, Challenges and Choices. A strategic study of Philippine NGOs. Manila, Philippines: Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs.
Estudillo, J.P and Otsuka, K. (1998), Green Revolution, Human Capital, and Off-Farm Employment: Changing sources of income among farm households in Central Luzon (1966-94). IFPRI/IRRI. Philippines: Economic Development and Cultural Change.
Fegan, B. (1989), "The Philippines: Agrarian stagnation under a decaying regime" in Hart G., Turton, A., et al. (eds.), Agrarian Transformation: Local processes and the state in Southeast Asia. California, USA: University of California Press.
IRRI (1997), BT Rice: Research and policy issues. Http://www.cgiar.org/irri/Bt.pdf
Moran, A. (ed.) (1994), IPR Sourcebook. With emphasis on intellectual property rights in agriculture and food, Los Baños, Philippines: UP College of Agriculture.
Perlas, N. and Vellvé, R. (1997), Oryza Nirvana: An NGO Review of the International Rice Research Institute in Southeast Asia. Quezon City, Philippines: SEARICE Publication.
Personal communications with Michael Cohen (IRRI).
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