CHED appeals for media to give “wider space” for encouraging youth to engage in science and technology courses.

Filipino plant scientists appeal for lifting of ban on field testing on GM Bt eggplant as there is a five to 10 years delay in enjoying the benefits of food-safe, environment-safe Bt eggplant release.

Govt warned critical insufficiency in Science enrolment, its adverse effect on research as GM plant field testing are also stopped 1

The government has warned on the critical insufficiency of college Science enrollment and its adverse effect in Science research which is worsened by judiciary-imposed limitations on field studies on the genetically modified (GM) Bt eggplant.

Enrollment in the country’s college Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) courses is now just at 549,000 students.

This is an insignificant 16.14 percent of total undergraduate enrollment of 3.4 million. Of the 549,000 STEM enrolment, a large chunk of 150,000 is solely on the more familiar course civil engineering.

CHED’s role is only in encouraging the youth to take certain challenging courses like STEM, Juanillo admitted.

Yet, he warned the dismal enrolment level is foreboding of a similarly dismal future for the science and technology (S&T) sector and national development in general.

“You don’t have a critical mass of young Filipinos who are engaged in science. This 549,000 students is not enough to propel discussion, intelligent critical thinking on all these issues (including GM crops). Come to think of it, what kind of national consciousness or discourse do we have in the Philippines?” said Juanillo in a National Biotechnology Week (NBW) press briefing.

“Discussions will be based on folklore. And if a country is depending on folklore, what kind of informed decision-making are we going to have on these complex issues on science and technology?”

Adverse effect on Science research

There is also presently a limitation on experimentation or field testing conducted by plant scientists as the Court of Appeals (CA) has effectively issued a decision banning field testing on the GM Bt eggplant.

“We hope research will be allowed so that government’s investment won’t be wasted. The (CA) ruling discourages our future generation of researchers to do research. Instead of getting the benefit of the research, the result is now delayed by five to 10 years,” said National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Director Reynaldo V. Ebora in the same briefing.

The ban on field testing of GM crops has huge adverse effect on the function of the College of Agriculture-University of the Philippines Los Banos (CA-UPLB), according to CA Dean Domingo Angeles.

“The role of the university is to conduct research. The faculty who are in research generate new knowledge according to needs of the country. We want to give technology options to our farmers. Do farmers like it or not? If we are stopped in our duty in the university, that will be an affront to our own duty and academic freedom,” said Angeles.

The lack of state-of-the-art laboratory and research facilities in the country is also discouraging Filipino science experts from abroad to go back and contribute to research and the economy.

This was according to Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, Natural Resources Research and Development Jocelyn E. Eusebio.

Role in national development

Biotechnology, which includes GM technology, should be contributing to national development, Juanillo said.

“Biotechnology should have a significant impact on food production and security, in health and nutrition as well as in environment safety and protection. Our intention in the National Biotechnology Week is to make visible the role biotechnology plays in national discourse,” said Juanillo.

It should be beneficial to discuss issues on biotechnology and GM crops.

“We believe biotechnology is one big avenue for our scientists and advocates as well as innovators in the field to express the value and premium we should be putting on science,” said Juanillo.

Because of the lamentable state of science education in the Philippines, the serious problem is sometimes turned into a joke.

“I have this recurring joke that in a school of fisheries, they usually have only two students. Kaya mas marami pa ang sirena sa ABS CBN at GMA, hindi pa kasali ang siokoy. We’re becoming a country with questions on the simplistic state of education.”

Enrollment in Math and “thinking courses” (like Philosophy and Philippine Literature) is also dwindling.

“Our mathematicians are just 1.62 percent of our underground population. In our last academic year, we produced only 1,000 new mathematicians. We could no longer limit some more or put parameters to decisions on career pathways of our young students, said Juanillo.

R&D focus

CHED’s thrust now is to encourage more youth to pursue courses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Agri-fisheries, and Math).

Its focus on our research and development will be five sectors — food production and security, disaster preparedness or resiliency and disaster mitigation, smart analytics and engineering innovation, and translational health.

The health R&D will even more have sharp focus. This will be on “reducing maternal mortality, newborn and child health and nutrition, tuberculosis, malaria” which are unmet Millennium Development goals.

The other focus is on marine ecosystem because we’re 90 percent water and yet we don’t have marine scientists.”

Appeal to mass media

“Our appeal to mass media is we hope they will have wider space for really encouraging these areas of study that are very beautiful. They don’t have to be difficult disciplines,” Juanillo said.

“STEAM is a very good acronym, and it’s very metaphorical for growth.”

Unlike what some think, science experts are human.

“Let this be a conversation for us. Let me also appeal to media that sometimes Science is also sexy. People in this room are not nerds. They are human beings, made of flesh and blood. Our appeal to the media to make science as part of the normal conversation in the country. Let’s use that as scaffolding for today’s conversation,” Juanillo said.

Science or Math studies, he said, develop hardwork.

“Math is great, seemingly they may be difficult. But I think we have to get our people’s mindset. Sometimes while these are more challenging or difficult, these subjects build character. Science builds ability to persevere, science needs patience, science needs perseverance, Juanillo said.

“When you get into the whole discipline of science, it never leaves you. It’s something you carry with you no matter what. It definitely becomes a framework for decision making. You’re not speculative. You’re always looking for questioning whether that evidence is generated properly.”

Bt eggplant uprooting

Filipino scientists that developed Bt eggplant are hoping those (Greenpeace) that destroyed (uprooted) Bt eggplant trial crops at the UPLB test area will be punished based on legal violations.

“The university hopes it will receive the right decision (in the Bt eggplant destruction case) because (the law says) not anyone should be allowed to enter the experimental site,” said Ebora. “If we had violation, then it should be stopped. But the field testing was compliant of all regulations.”

Government, through the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) and the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) is actually pursuing food and environment safety policies on biotechnology and GM products, according to NRCP Director Carina G. Lao in the same briefing.

Export through Bt corn

Because of farmers’ adoption of Bt corn, which has the same technology as Bt eggplant, the country has become sufficient in corn, according to Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Chief Antonio Alfonso. It even now exports Bt corn silage.

There is no record of ill health effect or ill effect on the environment from Bt corn in the last 20 years since Bt corn was released in 1996, Alfonso said.

“If we did not start (commercializing) Bt corn 10 years ago, what would have happened to our corn sector. Now we have achieved self sufficiency in corn, and we’re no exporting corn because of Bt corn,” said Alfonso.

There are now more than 800,000 hectares of land planted by farmers on Bt corn.

If the courts stopped Bt eggplant field testing, how much more will there be questions on field testing of pesticides, according to Angeles.

“This is only on biotechnology (Bt eggplant). How much more if we go to pesticide testing?We need to test pesticides to determine whether a pesticide is toxic or non toxic. We’re researching essentially to find out if these technologies are safe or not, if these technologies will protect or not protect our environment,” Angeles said.

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