Blaming cassava

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The truly Christian among us can assume that God didn’t do it, as suggested by Bohol Bishop Christian Noel–whose very name resonates with piety, and who should have known better.

Noel implied that God killed the 27 children of Mabini, Bohol, who died after eating a cassava snack because the Department of Health’s Ligtas Buntis (Safe Pregnancy) program was “not pleasing to God.”

If God is just, then Noel can’t be right, since that would mean that God’s wrath was misdirected. If He doesn’t like Ligtas Buntis, He should have struck down Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit and his DOH cohorts instead, rather than 27 children from a remote town in the Visayas.

But having rejected the assumption that God is not only vain, violent and vindictive, but also unjust and cruel, those Filipinos whose feet are more firmly on the ground must look for the real culprit or culprits in the Bohol tragedy. This is turning out to be nearly as problematic as most other offenses to justice and civilization in this country, thanks to, among other government institutions, the National Bureau of Investigation.

As of yesterday, the NBI’s Reynaldo Wycoco was suggesting that it was the vendor who sold the children the cassava snack who did it. Anna Luyong, said Wycoco, had “confessed” that she used a variety of cassava that has a higher cyanide content. In addition to implying that Luyong had committed the crime (she “confessed”), Wycoco also weighed in against the white cassava variety, and said that he would recommend uprooting all white cassava plants in the country.

Public health doctors, however, had said earlier that it wasn’t so much the cassava as some contamitant that killed the children. Doctors at the Mabini town hospital said last Saturday that their working hypothesis was pesticide poisoning, specifically pesticides from a class or type called organophospates.
Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit pointed out that the children in hospital were responding to an antidote to organophospate poisoning. As for the suggestion that cyanide in the cassava was responsible, a government chemist said that the cyanide concentration in the cassava snacks was low, and was not the cause of the deaths.

As for uprooting all white cassava plants in the country, good luck to those who want to do so, cassava being everywhere in the archipelago. Cassava, however, is still likely to be a casualty of the Bohol poisoning even if Wycoco and company fail to uproot every single plant. When news of the poisoning broke last week, the price of cassava dropped to record lows; food products made out of cassava flour languished unsold on store shelves, and housewives from one end of the archipelago to the other vowed never to give their children anything made of cassava again.

Cassava is a root crop widely consumed in the Philippines. It is used in a vast variety of cakes, snacks and desserts and grows wild in many places, being tough and drought- resistant. In a country where hunger is now a reality for many poor households, cassava is among those food crops that can make the crucial difference between starvation and survival. Cassava roots are excellent sources of energy, while the leaves, which are also cooked and eaten in many parts of the Philippines, contain vitamins A and C, calcium, protein and iron.
While the bitter variety (white cassava) of the plant has larger concentrations of cyanide than the sweet variety (yellow cassava) Filipinos have known how to prepare cassava since it was first introduced into this country from the Americas, possibly by the Spaniards. That makes its poisoning anyone extremely rare.

Cassava has been hailed as “the crop of the future”, and as capable of providing food for the starving millions all over the planet, especially those in the drought-stricken regions of Africa. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has a “Global Cassava Strategy” to encourage cassava cultivation and the development of new varieties. FAO credits the cultivation of cassava and the availability of cassava food products to the poor for reducing undernourishment in several African countries by more than 30 percent between 1981 and 1998.

The bad press cassava is getting is thus most probably undeserved. The irony, however, is that what’s likely to be the real culprits could survive this tragedy unscathed.

Those culprits are the pesticides the environmentalist Rachel Carson exposed in her 1962 book Silent Spring as responsible for the poisoning of vast areas of the planet; their manufacturers, most of them transnational corporations; and their advocates who continue, despite the vast evidence of the harm they can cause, to encourage farmers, plantations and even ordinary households to use them.

In the Philippines the use of pesticides was widely encouraged in the course of the “green revolution” of the early 1970s, resulting in huge increases in pesticide imports from 1972 onwards. It was not coincidental that the Philippines was under martial law during this period. The Marcos regime encouraged the use of the so-called, and now failed, high-yielding rice varieties, which required vast inputs of chemical fertilizer and the use of pesticides.

Organophospates are among the most widely used pesticides in the world. They kill insects by disrupting their nervous systems by inhibiting the function of a key enzyme. Unfortunately, the enzyme is also a component of the human nervous system. In the United States alone, there were over 60,000 reports of organophospate poisoning from 1993 to 1996. Some 25,000 of these cases involved children.

Organophospates like malathion , diazinon and chlorpyrifos are used in cockroach and flea sprays, among other household insecticides, but are also widely used in the United States to kill insects that attack apples, beans, grapes, peaches, pears, peas, potatoes and tomatoes. In Bohol it is likely that organophospates are used on mangoes, among other agricultural products.

There have been thousands of cases of pesticide poisoning in the Philippines over the last four decades. The widespread use of pesticides has resulted in the contamination of the ground, the air, and of water resources. They are so common that the vendor of the cassava sweet may have used oil or some other ingredient that had been transferred to a pesticide container, or had mistaken pesticide for sugar.

The Bohol deaths should throw into sharp focus a problem that has evaded attention in this country for decades. Instead of blaming cassava, or presuming criminal intent in the vendor who sold the children the cassava snacks, the government could do better by focusing its attention on controlling the sale of food in schools to start with–and beyond that, to regulating the use of pesticides by, among other measures, seeing to it that users are properly educated on their use, storage and disposal.

And please, let’s keep God and nature out of it. Like most of the tragedies Filipinos have had to bear in this vale of tears, this one’s also man-made.

(Manila Standard Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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