It may not be hogging the media limelight, but the legal battle before the Supreme Court on issues hounding the role of modern agricultural biotechnology may just prove to be an interesting one.
As we previously discussed in this column, the legal war pits the country’s science community spearheaded by the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB), several agencies under the agriculture and environment departments and a handful of research organizations against the giant European activist group Greenpeace.
Following Greenpeace’s legal victory at the Court of Appeals (CA) level, its Filipino adversaries have brought the case before the High Court. The CA had earlier issued a “writ of kalikasan” at the behest of Greenpeace, by applying the so-called “precautionary principle.”
The problem, many international law experts say, is that there are still contrasting views on how this “principle” should be applied. In fact, they point out that until now, there is no universally accepted definition or interpretation of this novel principle.
Be that as it may, the CA’s writ effectively stopped all field trials being conducted by Filipino scientists for a biotech eggplant variety called “Bt Talong”. The Filipino groups have come before the SC in a bid to have the earlier resolution of the appellate court reversed.
A reversal of the CA-issued writ will allow the Filipino scientist groups to resume and complete the field trials of Bt Talong, a plant variety that had aroused the interest of Filipino farmers because of its natural, built-in ability to fight deadly plant pests. Because of this, Bt Talong no longer needs chemical pesticides. Greenpeace vehemently opposes the propagation of this variety.
From the legal community’s viewpoint, the fact that Greenpeace’s war against Filipino scientists has reached the SC is a welcome development.
The SC’s jurisdiction over the issue seems to show that Greenpeace has opted to use legal and more peaceful means in its bid to stop the propagation of pesticide-free biotech crop varieties in this country. There were allegations in the past that Greenpeace operatives in the Philippines may have resorted to the more violent methods of destroying and burning down government-run trial farms planted with these pesticide-free crops.
It will also be interesting to see how our scientists and government agencies will argue their cause versus their avowed nemesis.
The way we see it, the legal battle’s outcome will rest on how the SC applies this newfangled doctrine.
True, protecting human health and the environment is indeed laudable. But it is impossible to mitigate all risk from scientific invention. If that were the case, then governments shouldn’t have allowed the use of cellphones in the first place. To our mind, the precautionary principle should be used judiciously and rationally, balancing uncertainties with the benefits that innovation and new technology offers.
The other interesting development in the SC case is the entry into the legal skirmish of several Filipino farmers who have filed a petition for “review-in-intervention.” Simply put, the farmers recognize that they are not among the original main protagonists, but because of a legitimate stake in the case, they now plead to be given the chance to air their side.
This, too, is a welcome development. After all, the public has so far only heard what “farmers” groups allied with Greenpeace had to say. We have yet to hear what farmers who want to plant pesticide-free biotech crop varieties have to say. There’s no better venue for them to have their voices heard than the High Court itself.
Greenpeace has vehemently objected to the petitions for review-in-intervention filed by other pro-biotechnology groups. It will be interesting to see if the European pressure group would likewise put the might of its legal team to stop the Filipino farmers from joining the legal fray. Even more interesting is what Greenpeace would tell the High Court to prevent the Filipino farmers from getting their voices heard.
Already, it appears Greenpeace has the upper hand. It is represented by lawyers who are both brilliant and media-savvy. This is important since the biotech war is also a battle for public opinion.
We doubt, however, if the Filipino farmers can mobilize the same resource. It will not even be surprising if Greenpeace is able to get their petition for review-in-intervention junked by the SC if the European pressure group decides to do so.
Here’s the last interesting point in this war: the resolution of this case will settle the issue of whether or not our farmers will have the freedom to choose which crop variety to plant: the pesticide-free type or the one that depends on European chemical pesticides to survive.
Our SC is a bastion of wisdom. Keeping faith in that fact should keep the hopes of our countrymen—and farmers—that such issue can be resolved, wisely.