I live almost 7,000 miles away from Seattle, but here in the Philippines I’m keeping close tabs on I-522, the ballot initiative in the state of Washington to require special labels for food with genetically modified ingredients.
And many of my fellow Filipino farmers are watching closely with me. We are hopeful that voters in Washington will reject this badly flawed initiative on November 5.
If they don’t, we worry that their decision will threaten our livelihoods here.
How could a statewide referendum on one side of the Pacific Ocean influence farmers on the other side?
The question may sound strange, but the answer is simple: The world looks to the United States for leadership, especially in matters of science and regulation. This is doubly true in the Philippines, with its historic ties to the United States and the large number of Filipino immigrants now living within U.S. borders. More than 130,000 Filipinos call Washington home, making them the state’s largest group of Asian Americans.
So if Washington approves I-522, its voters will send a powerful message—and it will say that Washington voters have rejected science and believe – wrongly – that foods with GM ingredients are suspicious and deserve warning labels.
This would be terrible for farmers in the Philippines.
Here at home, we’re locked in a battle over food security, trying to grow enough food to feed our nation of more than 90 million people. As farmers, we face all of the traditional threats: weeds, pests, and droughts. New concerns about conservation and climate change make the job even more challenging.
To make ends meet, we need every available tool, including biotechnology. Passage of I-522, however, will encourage our government to believe that Americans are newly skeptical about GM crops.
These plants already have been an incredible blessing: This proven technology allows us to grow more food on less land than ever before. The seeds cost more to buy, but they’re worth it—a clear case of "you get what you pay for."
The rumor that GM crops are dangerous is just plain silly: Groups ranging from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization have deemed them completely safe. If I had harbored even the slightest doubt about them, I would not have fed them to my family.
Not only are these crops safe—they’re actually safer than non-GM crops. That’s because they’ve allowed maize (corn) farmers like me to decrease our reliance on herbicides and pesticides. Although these sprays are safe for consumers, they can pose hazards for farmers in the field. We’re much less exposed to them now, thanks to biotechnology.
These plants are so good at fighting weeds we’re even tilling our fields less. So we’re both growing more food and preventing soil erosion.
GM crops are not just environmentally sustainable—they’re also economically viable. If I had not started planting GM corn when it first became available, I probably would not have been able to afford to send my three sons to college.
These plants also hold tremendous potential to fight the scourge of malnutrition, such as vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness and even death. Golden rice, an experimental GM plant developed with the assistance of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, boosts vitamin A and could become a key to the health of children in the developing world.
Yet even this has become controversial, thanks to a toxic mix of ideology and ignorance.
In August, a group of anti-GM activists destroyed a paddy field of golden rice—an attack on the very idea of scientific research. We’ve recently learned that the group behind this destruction was funded in part by Swedish foreign aid. The government and people of Sweden probably have no idea that the misuse of their funds is making it harder for Filipinos to farm.
Approval of I-522 won’t stop me from growing GM crops next season, but it would send a signal that Americans have new doubts about biotechnology. It could cause another delay, for instance, in my country’s approval of GM talong (also known as eggplant), which is a staple food here.
For the sake of my country’s food security—the ability of farmers to grow more food in sustainable ways—I hope the voters of Washington state will reject I-522.