Saturday, October 20, 2012

World Food Day: Village Biotechnology

Dr Abe V Rotor

Nature works silently through her invisible biological agents. We wake up to the fresh aroma of coffee, chocolate, vanilla, the cured taste of dried tapa, tinapa, ham and bacon – all these are products of a mysterious process we generally call fermentation. Aged wine is mellower, cured tobacco is more aromatic, naturally ripened fruits are sweeter, dried prunes, raisin and dates have higher sugar content and have longer shelf life. 

Favorite local breakfast food

Why many foods taste better after allowing them to stand for sometime! Take suman, tupig, puto, bibingka, and the like. Thanks to the myriads of microorganisms working in our favor even while we are asleep.

The vast potential uses of microorganisms - bacteria, algae, fungi and the like - in providing food, medicine and better environment to supply the requirements of our fast growing population and standard of living are being tapped by biotechnology. Biotechnology hand in hand with genetic engineering will likely dominate the Green Revolution of this century – the fourth since Neolithic time. But will this be a Green Revolution for the people?

Biotechnology is not new

My father, a gentleman farmer, was a brewer. He inherited the trade from my grandfather and from previous generations. I still use today the good earthen jars in producing the same products – basi, the traditional Ilocos wine, and its by-product, natural vinegar - using the same indigenous formula.

The making of basi and vinegar, as well as a dozen other products of sugarcane, like panocha, pulitiput, kalamay, sinambong, and kinalti, is a traditional cottage industry in the Ilocos region which is traced back to the Pre-Hispanic era when hundreds of small independent brewers like my father lived comfortably on this once flourishing industry.

Things appeared simple then. But time has changed. We know that sugarcane has long been planted with rice, legumes and vegetables, but it sounds like new in modern parlance with terms like crop rotation or crop diversification. Making of wine, vinegar and confectionery products are under agro-industry. Because the process generates profit, we call this value-added advantage. So with the tax that is now slap manufactured products. To determine the business viability of a business we determine its internal rate 

Tropical fruits in season 

of return (IIR) and its return on investment (ROI). Brewing today is agro-processing and an agribusiness. And my father would be called not just a proprietor, but a business partner since family members and relatives share in the operation of the business. Possibly his title today would be general manager or CEO.

Things in my father’s time had become outdated, shifting away from traditional to modern. But it is not only a matter of terminology; it is change in business structure and system.

Big business is name of the game - not always.

Like many other village industries, the local breweries bowed out to companies that now control the production of commercial and imported brands. The proliferation of many products and the inability of local products to keep up with the growing sophisticated market have further brought their doom. Definitely under such circumstances the small players under the business parameter of economics of scale find themselves at the losing end. Bigness is name of the game.

Monopolies and cartels now control much of the economy here and in other countries. Transnational companies have grown into giants, that one big company far outweighs the economy of a small country. Total business assets of North Carolina is more than that of Argentina, which is one of the biggest countries of the world in terms of land area and population.

Today agribusiness and biotechnology are corporate terms that are difficult to translate on the village level and by small entrepreneurs.

All these fit well into the present capitalistic system that is greatly under the influence of IMF-WB on borrower-countries, and terms of trade agreements imposed by GATT-WTO on its members, many of which reluctantly signed the its ratification. Under the capitalistic system there has been a shift of countryside industries into the hands of corporations, national and transnational. Take these examples.

Coffee is raised by millions of small farmers all over the world, but it is monopolized by such giant companies like Nestle and Consolidated Foods. Cacao is likewise a small farmer’s crop, but controlled by similar multinationals. So with tea, the world’s second most popular beverage.

Unfortunately this inequity in the sharing of the benefits of these industries is exacerbated by the absence of a strong and effective mass-based program that emphasizes countryside development through livelihood and employment opportunities. Multi-national monopolies thrive on such business climate and biased laws and program in their favor.

Tulingan, a typical marine fish

We import rice, corn, sugar, fruits, meat and poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables in both fresh and processed products, when in the sixties and seventies we were exporters of the same products. We were then second or third in ranking after Japan in terms of economic development.


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