March 4, 2004
-- CropChoice news -- John Aglionby, The Guardian, 03/03/04:
The recently planted rows of pineapple plants in the
four-acre field on one side of the Malayon family home
look neat and well-tended, but are otherwise not really
worth a second glance.
But what occurred last year on and around this plot
in Kalyong village, on the southern Philippine island
of Mindanao, is threatening to turn this unremarkable
field into a battleground in the war over genetically
For the first time there are indications that the pollen
from the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize sown here
last year may have contributed to human illness.
Terje Traavik, the scientific director of the Norwegian
Institute of Gene Ecology, who was asked last October
to analyze blood samples from 39 of the 100 people who
fell ill, has said that a link might exist between GM
crops and human health.
"My interpretation is there is a coincidence in
time between two different phenomena," he said.
However, he stressed that more tests were needed before
a definite conclusion could be drawn.
The landowners, government officials, and Monsanto,
the multinational company that provided the seeds planted
on the plot, insist the corn is not the cause. They
claim the villagers are being manipulated by anti-GM
Villagers say the trouble began in July last year when
the maize plants started flowering.
"There was this really pungent smell that got
into our throats," said Maryjane Malayon. "It
was like we were breathing in pesticides."
Her sister, Amaniel, their parents, Samuel and Merlina,
and Maryjane's nine-month-old daughter, Eileen, began
coughing, vomiting, feeling dizzy and suffering from
head and stomach aches.
Within days people living a little further away, on
the other side of the dusty road that runs through this
village on the slopes of the remote 7,500ft (2,286m)
volcano Mount Matutum, were experiencing similar symptoms.
Pablo Semon, a community leader, says about 100 people
Maryjane says the situation got so bad that the family
was forced to move to a relative's home three miles
down the mountain.
"We were the only ones who moved because we were
so close," she explains. "But within a week
we had all recovered."
A villager who had no home at the time, Bernhard Nanquil,
says he rented the Malayon home after they left.
"Within a week I too was sick with a stomach ache
and diarrhea." Others noticed that their livestock
"One day the horse ate some of the corn plants
and its appetite disappeared," said Nestor Catoran.
"The belly swelled, its mouth started frothing
and it slowly died."
Villagers are linking the corn to the deaths of four
other horses, which were disposed of without any analysis.
However, all the villagers are convinced that the corn
is in some way responsible for their illness.
One of the owners of the land, Sensie Victoriano, accepts
that the villagers fell ill, but laughs at suggestions
it was because of the corn, tens of thousands of acres
of which were cultivated across the country last year
with no resulting accusations.
Ms Victoriano blames "a group of activists who
are against GMOs".
Dr Traavik, who describes himself as a GMO skeptic
and not an opponent, says it is highly unlikely the
Bt toxin was the only cause of the villagers' sickness.
"There's no illness that's caused by only one
factor," he said. "What happened in there
[Kalyong] could have been an underlying viral infection
that could explain the symptoms, but that does not exclude
the possibility that this has been exacerbated by a
new allergenic protein from the Bt corn."
The head of the corn program at the department of agriculture,
Artemio Salazar, has no time for the villagers' allegations.
"The phenomenon - the supposedly allergenic reaction
- was also occurring in areas where there was no Bt
corn," he said yesterday, without being able to
name any of the other regions.
One of his microbiology experts, Nina Barzaga, from
the University of the Philippines, added: "We have
to see the results.
"But I think they're trying to create some panic
... the Bt toxin has never been associated with any
sickness anywhere in the world."
Dr Traavik said he would be willing to share his results
with Dr Barzaga but cautioned against saying there had
never been problems with Bt maize.
Monsanto was not available for comment yesterday but
said last week that it was extremely unlikely that the
maize was responsible for ill health in the village.
"There have been no documented cases of allergic
reactions to Bt maize after seven years of broad commercial
use on millions of hectares in the US, Canada, Argentina,
Spain and South Africa, starting in 1996," a spokesman