We were quizzed over the weekend by some friends and readers about a recent resolution of the Court of Appeals (CA) affirming an earlier decision to stop the field trials of Bt Talong.
Bt Talong, it will be recalled, is an eggplant variety being developed by Filipino scientists from the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) using modern agricultural biotechnology processes. These processes enable the variety to acquire built-in resistance to pests and borers. Such built-in resistance makes for minimal use or even total elimination of chemical pesticides.
Among the questions that they asked were: Why would the CA stop what looks like a good scientific study to address food issues hounding the country? In stopping the field trials, isn’t the CA ruling against science in favor of unfounded fears? Did the CA succumb to pressure from foreign groups committed to stop Filipino scientists? Is the CA decision a setback to science?
Admittedly, these are legitimate and important questions given the decision’s impact not only on current and future scientific research but also on food security and rural poverty eradication initiatives.
At the outset, however, we were quick to declare that as a member of the Philippine Bar, we are bound to respect the decision of our courts. Furthermore, we have yet to see a copy of this latest CA resolution. And since we do not personally know any of the parties involved and we are not a counsel to any of them, we are not inclined to look for a copy on our own volition. We can only rely on what the press has reported regarding the issue.
We have to admit, however, that friends and readers closely following the saga of our Filipino scientists’ bid to address food security issues have raised some valid points.
For instance, they expressed concern over what media said was the basis of the CA decision, which is, that the field trials for Bt Talong must be stopped for “lack of proof that the plant is safe for human consumption and the environment.”
But wasn’t that the very reason for conducting the field trials in the first place, they asked. Weren’t the field trials supposed to provide the so-called “empirical evidence” demanded by the courts?
Not a few also asked: “Is there sufficient evidence to show that Bt Talong is not safe for human consumption and the environment? Did the CA simply fall for the apocalyptic scenarios painted by anti-biotechnology groups hook, line and sinker? Did the CA decide the case on the basis of fear rather than on the basis of solid, scientific proof?”
Of course, we ought to give the CA the benefit of the doubt. The presumption must be that the CA merely acted on the basis of what was presented to them by the contending parties.
We do not have a first-hand knowledge of the arguments presented before the CA so we cannot offer a strictly legal view on the issue.
It is understandable though that many are disturbed by what they feel has been a curtailment of Academic Freedom in light of the CA decision.
Academic Freedom is what allows scientific research to thrive in the institutions of higher learning such as UPLB. It is based on the principle that the freedom of inquiry is essential to the mission of such institutions. It promotes the belief that these institutions must have the freedom to search for facts and ideas and to communicate them without the threat of repression from authorities.
Based on what we have read on UPLB’s stand on the research on Bt Talong, academic freedom is one of the pillars of their cause.
This must be why they have made such a firm stand. In their view, it is not just the fate of the research on Bt Talong which is at stake here; the very essence of Academic Freedom may have been put into question.
The CA, it appears, believes that there are limits to scientific inquiry and to the exercise of Academic Freedom. Did the CA limit that Freedom on the basis of unfounded fear peddled by foreign pressure groups?
That’s not an issue for us to pass judgment on. That’s for UPLB and our Filipino scientists to raise before the proper venue, which in this case, is the Supreme Court (SC).
Elevating the matter to the SC will give them a fresh opportunity to explain the science on the matter and to argue the cause of Academic Freedom.
Before the SC, Filipino scientists will have another chance to make the clear contrast between scientific proof and the unfounded fears peddled by well-funded foreign pressure groups.
Meanwhile, we must all respect the judicial process and patiently wait for science to triumph over scare tactics and lies.