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[MANILA] Favourable media coverage may have influenced public acceptance of biotechnology in the Philippines, according to researchers.

A ten-year study published in the latest issue of The Journal of Science Communication of the coverage of agricultural biotechnology in the Philippines' three leading newspapers showed that they published an average of 136 articles a year.

In comparison, a similar study from 1990 to 2001 showed that The Times in London and The Washington Post published a maximum of 80 articles per year.

So far, the Philippines is the only Asian country to have approved the commercial planting of Bt corn, a genetically modified crop. Despite being a relatively small player in the biotech field, the Philippines is ranked eleventh worldwide in terms of area planted to biotech crops.

The researchers points out that although the news on agricultural biotechnology was generally positive, the issue was not high on the media agenda, usually appearing on the inside pages of newspapers.

All three local dailies have dedicated science or agriculture sections, and the researchers found that 85% of the biotech articles were in news form, usually in these sections. They noted that in contrast, in the United States, only 4 per cent of the articles appeared in science sections.

"News coverage was also timed with important events, with reports peaking during 2002 to 2005, largely because of developments concerning Bt corn," said lead author Mariechel Navarro of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications in Manila.

Biotechnology had to compete with other reports on political and economic controversies that besieged the Philippines, the researchers noted. Many articles concentrated on biosafety issues.

Daniel Ocampo, campaigns coordinator for Greenpeace, said that reporters often missed out on other dimensions of biotechnology in the Philippines.

"What was being covered were only genetically modified crops, but these were not the whole of biotechnology," said Ocampo. Efforts by scientists and civil society groups to develop saline-tolerant and water-tolerant crops, for example, were not written up, he said, "because these were not scandalous".

Others points out that journalists writing about biotechnology need support to sharpen their skills. "Writers need training, orientation and exposure, even including laboratory exposure, to write about biotechnology and make it real to themselves," said science writer Melody Aguiba.

Joel Paredes, a biotechnology advocate and journalist, believes that scientists do not do enough to help. "Writers find it hard to write about and simplify biotechnology," he complained, adding that the Bt corn controversy in the Philippines arose from scientists' refusal to share information.

He was recently put off by one scientist involved in developing genetically modified 'golden rice' because the scientist needed clearance before he could release information about his agency's involvement with the crop.