Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume IV,  Number 7              March 14 - 20, 2004            Quezon City, Philippines


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Independent Probe Shows Bt-Corn has Human Costs

A Norwegian scientist presented last week the results of his preliminary study showing immunological reaction to Bt-toxin, a component of the genetically-modified corn variant called Bt-corn, highlighting the government’s questionable approval of Bt-corn for commercial distribution.


Dr. Terje Traavik, A professor on gene ecology at the University of Tromso in Norway and director of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, last week said that he has detected the presence of IgG, IgA and IgM antibodies from the blood samples of 38 individuals afflicted with different diseases in South Cotabato, a southern province in the island of Mindanao, southern Philippines.

South Cotabato is one of the country’s first provinces where the Bt-corn, which contains a natural, corn borer-resistant insecticide called bacillus thuringiensis, is cultivated since the Department of Agriculture (DA) approved the commercialization of genetically-engineered corns last January 2003. The approval was given despite the opposition of farmer’s groups, scientists, environmentalists as well as some leaders of the Roman Catholic Church on health and ecological grounds.

Monsanto, a U.S. multinational agrochemical giant, is marketing Bt-corn seeds in the country under the brand name Yieldgard. It also distributes seeds under the names Cargill, Monsanto and Dekalb and is currently working to introduce the Roundup ready corn variety.

In a paper presented during a press briefing in Quezon City last week, Dr. Traavik explained that "specific serum IgG antibodies show that (the affected) individual has been exposed to antigen, such as the Bt toxin, during its lifetime." The Bt toxin is the antigen or alien particle which is said to cause the activation of the three antibodies, known as immunoglobins.

The Norwegian scientist, however, has offered his assistance to the Philippine government in leading a scientific study on the effects of transgenic crop on human health, centering on the presence of IgE antibodies or its allergenic reactions. "We will not leave this field of study to the industry itself," Dr. Traavik said, admitting that a more painstaking investigation is indeed necessary to verify the link between the persistence of the antibodies against Bt toxin and the diseases the patients reportedly caught from their exposure to the Bt corn farm. This study, however, may take experts one to two years to accomplish.

He also expressed interest to undertake another study among patients in the province in search for more conclusive evidence.

Intoxicated people

Last July 2003, around 51 local residents of Sityo Kalyong, Barangay Landan in Polomolok town, came to town to seek medication after being hit at the same time by several illnesses such as coughs, colds, fever, vomiting, abdominal pains, headaches and difficulty in breathing. The victims’ age ranged from five months to 49 years.

Residents point to a nearby 1.75 hectare Bt-corn plantation which was then on its pollinating stage. Victims said they got sick after smelling a foul odor coming from the pollens of the crop, which was within 100 meters from their houses.

Monsanto denial

In its Aug. 11, 2003 issue, the daily Today reported that Monsanto’s product development manager Arnold Estrada has denied claims that the illnesses reportedly afflicting local residents were caused by the biotechnology-induced corn. But after receiving several health-related complaints, the Justice and Peace Desk of the Diocese of Marbel conducted a medical mission in the area and subsequently called on local health officials for a toxological examination to determine the real cause of the illnesses. They also sought the assistance of two peasant support NGOs, the South East Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (Searice) and the Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (Masipag or Peasants and Scientists for Agricultural Development).

A documentation of the case was also submitted to Dr. Lynn Crisanta Panganiban of the National Poison Control and Information Service (NPCIS) of the University of the Philippines’ (UP) College of Medicine. The NPCIS’ interpretation revealed that the clustering effect on the manifestation of the symptoms at almost the same period is more indicative of a chemical rather than biologic exposure.

Dr. Traavik, when informed by the local church about the incident, visited Polomolok and volunteered to analyze the patients’ blood samples in his laboratory in Norway. In October last year, Searice and Masipag sent the blood samples to Dr. Traavik.

Early Warning

Meanwhile, Dr. Romeo Quijano, head of the Pesticide Action Network-Philippines, said it is not Dr. Traavik that should be doing the blood tests. “Rather it should be Monsanto and other companies that push these technologies," he said in the press briefing.

Quijano, a pharmacologist at the UP’s College of Medicine also said that the burden of proof should not be on them but should be on those who promote genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). He pointed that the independent study is "ultimately more credible" aside from being untainted with corporate self-interest.

Quijano lambasted the Department of Agriculture (DA) for its failure to create a monitoring system that would effectively protect the environment and ensure people’s health from the hazards of biotechnology.

The broad alliance called Resistance and Solidarity Against Agrochemical Transnational Corporations (RESIST) also said that with Traavik’s findings, there is enough evidence for the DA to immediately suspend the commercialization of Bt corn and freeze all field testing of other GMOs.

RESIST believes that GMOs are products of imperialist globalization which will push the entire country’s agricultural system under the control of profit-oriented big foreign capitalists. The alliance is set to release its own findings regarding the socio-economic impact of the GMO commercialization, such as crop damage and additional expenses which is a burden to many small farmers.

RESIST co-coordinator and Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines) Rafael Mariano said: "The DA’s wait-and-see attitude poses great risk to the health and livelihood of our millions of farmers. From the start, we have warned the government of such a scenario. Railroading the rights of farmers for the interest of transnational corporations has reaped its dire consequences."

The DA, which is headed by Secretary Luis Lorenzo Jr., meanwhile has denied the incident in South Cotabato. But the farmers and scientists’ groups called the DA’s response to the issue as "horrifying" considering that the lives of affected communities adjoining Bt-corn fields are at stake.

Although the said study seems to have fallen on deaf ears, it will nevertheless help bolster the intensifying struggle against GMOs, and would make it more difficult for the Macapagal-Arroyo administration to justify its contentious decision to allow agrochemical TNCs to produce and propagate GMOs, they said.

"Being the regulator is even a questionable situation (for the DA)," Dr. Chito Medina of Masipag added. Bulatlat.com

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