The scientific community is gravely concerned about the negative effects on food security and research development in agriculture of the Supreme Court decision banning field testing on genetically-modified (GM) crops and scrapping the biosafety standards set by the Department of Agriculture (DA).
In a statement, the National Academy of Science and Technology Philippines (NAST-PHL) said all the supporters of biotech crops —including the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB), Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca), ISAAA and the corn industry—are concerned about the verdict since it conceivably covered not only GM crops but other products as well.
Last year, the high tribunal struck down a 2002 regulation and temporarily stopped the government from accepting applications for field testing, propagating, and importing GMOs until new rules are in place.
“Any application for contained use, field testing, propagation and commercialization, and importation of genetically modified organisms is temporarily enjoined until a new administrative order is promulgated in accordance with the law,” it said.
The DA’s administrative order failed to meet the minimum requirements for safety set in Executive Order No. 514, which established the National Biosafety Framework, the SC said.
It ordered the government to prepare an immediate plan of action to rehabilitate field trial sites and protect, preserve, and conserve the environment, and recommend policies and measures to reform the present regulatory process.
The activity that SC permanently stopped was the field testing of Bt eggplant in plots measuring 920 sq.m. each in five different places in the Philippines.
The field tests were part of a research project started in 2007 as an option for controlling the fruit and stem borer (FSB), the most destructive insect pest of the eggplant.
“The genetically engineered Bt talong would have provided an option for the farmers to control the FSB infestation of eggplant by incorporating the gene from naturally-occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that produces the toxin specific for the group of insects to which the FSB belongs,” NAST-PHL said.
“Bt has been used as a biopesticide for more than 50 years in many vegetable farms all over the world and has been proven to be harmless to human beings, plants and other animals,” the group emphasized.
At present, synthetic pesticides with known adverse health effects are sprayed between 60 and 80 times to control the FSB and prevent yield loss ranging from 70 percent to 80 percent in most of the 22,000 hectares planted to eggplant, the academy noted.
The court, however, blocked additional field tests to determine the viability of Bt talong.
“The SC was grossly misinformed that ‘genetic engineering dangerously tampers with the most fundamental natural components of life’ and that transgenic organisms do not occur in nature. In fact, there are naturally-occurring transgenic crops such as the banana, which has incorporated the genes from the banana streak virus and the cultivated sweet potato (camote), which contains genes from the bacterium (Agrobacterium),” NAST-PHL argued.
SC also concluded there is a lack of consensus on the safety of GM crops.
“NAST-PHL notes that such a conclusion was derived from a very limited literature survey, some from questionable sources. None of the references covered the statements of the Academies of Science of many developed and developing countries that there is no difference in the risks between GM crops (where only one or a few genes are introduced) and conventionally-bred crops (where thousands of genes recombine at random), a view that is shared by NAST-PHL,” the academy argued.
“Furthermore, NAST-PHL considers the nullification of the Department of Agriculture Order No.08, series of 2002 (DA0-08-2002) in its entirety as too harsh. The drafting of the said administrative order involved a process of extensive consultations with various stakeholders including farmer groups, scientists, academe, NGOs, the livestock industry, feed millers, food processors, commodity importers, including the representatives of foreign exporters and trading partners. These year-long consultations were conducted in Metro Manila, the Visayas and Mindanao,” the academy noted.
DAO-08-2002 is a carefully-crafted document and has provided effective guidance “for the importation and release into the environment of plants and plant products derived from the use of modern biotechnology for the last 12 years.”
If not clarified, the academy said the verdict will have serious repercussions on research and development activities, especially in plant breeding as well as the flow of the supply of food and feeds, specifically those that are based on crops largely harvested from transgenic lines like soybean and corn.
All soyabean produced by exporting countries are now GM, along with the Bt yellow corn used as animal feed by Filipino millers.
In 2014, the country imported 2.5 million metric tons (MMT) of soybean meal and 500,000 MT of yellow corn as feedstock.
The possible disruption in the supply chain due to the ban on GM products and byproducts may cause food security issues in the near future, NAST-PHL said.
“In sum, NAST-PHL appeals to the SC to review the decision in light of the issues and serious consequences that may arise,” it said.