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Alvarez models GMO farming: “To see is to believe”

By Justin Cremer

AD Alvarez in front of an Illinois corn field. Photo by Robert Hazen

When AD Alvarez and his family relocated to the Camotes Islands in 2010, he knew residents there wouldn’t be overly receptive to a city-slicker from Manila telling them what to do.

He was already familiar with that group of predominantly rural islands in the Philippines, having made repeated trips to visit his wife’s father there. He was also aware of the challenges faced by the local community.

“Every time I would visit, I would see poverty all over,” he told the Alliance for Science.

Alvarez initially thought that he could apply his microfinance background to help the Islands’ corn (maize) farmers receive new lines of credit. However, he quickly realized that there were already a number of microfinance options available and none appeared to be making a dent on the real problem: farmers were simply not growing enough corn to make a living.

Corn is a staple food on the Islands, where it is used to make grits and bread and is often mixed with rice. The typical yield of a traditional corn farmer on the Camotes Islands is about 600 kilos per hectare (535 pounds per acre). Alvarez said that most local farmers view their trade as “mostly a survival thing” and fail to see the monetary potential in agriculture.

Having grown up poor himself, Alvarez said he felt he had “an obligation” to help his new neighbors.

“Corn is like life for them, but the thing is if they plant corn, they don’t get enough yield to sustain them until the next planting or until the next harvest, so they end up having to buy corn and they are already living in poverty,” Alvarez said.

Thinking to himself that something had to change, Alvarez began reading up on insect-resistant Bt corn that could provide yields far greater than what farmers were currently producing on the islands.

But Alvarez knew he wouldn’t be able to simply teach the islanders about the benefits of technology — he would have to show them. He started his own corn farming operation on 35 hectares and was able to achieve about the average yield within his first year. After purchasing the insect-resistant Bt corn, he saw his next harvest shoot up to 2,000 kilos per hectare. The following year, it hit 6,000 — or roughly 10 times the average.

Although he achieved such marked improvements, Alvarez is quick to point out that what he tried on his own farm wasn’t exactly revolutionary.

“I didn’t invent anything, I just copied the technology that was already there,” he said.

The problem was that other farmers on the Camotes Islands were either unaware of Bt corn or wary of it, due to what he calls “the overwhelming noise of the campaign against biotech and GMO” in the local community.

“They need to know that this technology is there. This technology is projected to be a lot of evil stuff, but really, if you look into it, and look into the science, there is nothing bad about it,” he said. “So why is it being prevented from reaching these people who might need it?”

By the time Alvarez had so greatly improved his yields, he had also harvested friendships and a sense of community on the Islands. He thus wanted to help other farmers make the same types of gains that he had. But despite his seven years on the Islands, he still faced resistance and skepticism.

“There is this mindset of islander people; they don’t necessarily believe you right away if you are coming from the outside,” Alvarez said. “No amount of classroom training would make them believe what you are saying. So we don’t conduct training because we want them to see it first. To see is to believe.”

“My approach has never been, ‘Hey farmers, this is what you need to do: plant this, biotech, etc., etc.’ It’s not a one-way prescriptive approach. It always needs to be a dialogue. It’s a process,” he added.

Using his wife’s background and connections in radio and television, Alvarez is planning to set up a low-powered FM radio to help expand that dialogue to even more farmers on the Islands. He is also looking into starting a video blog and expanding his current use of social media.

Alvarez said he would apply some of the lessons he learned at the Alliance for Science’s recent farmer training session in Moline, Illinois to “communicate better to the people who need the technology.”

With the proof available for all to see on his own farming operation, Alvarez said there is now “a clamor to copy what I am doing.” He’s hopeful he can get more Islanders to follow his lead.

“I think it will catch on like wildfire and we might turn the economy on this small island around,” he said.

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