Precautionary Principle

Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D.

Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D.

The Court of Appeals’ (CA) Special 13th Division issued a writ of kalikasan last May to stop the field trials of Bt Talong that was being undertaken in different parts of the country. In a decision penned by CA Associate Justice Isaias Dicdican, and concurred with Associate Justices Myra Garcia-Fernandez and Nina Antonio-Valenzuela, the appellate court enjoined the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and other agencies to stop the trials.

As recounted in a forum held by the petitioners belonging to the group RESIST, the CA decision pointed out four grounds in ordering the stop of the field trials. First, the court upheld the main argument that the field testing is characterized by “serious scientific uncertainty with regard to its health and environmental effects.”

RESIST is composed of different farmers organizations, NGOs, scientist and people’s organizations including the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, Magsasaka at Siyentipiko sa Pagpapaunlad ng Agrikultura (Masipag), Agham, Center for Environment Concerns, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Health Alliance for Democracy and the Philippine Network for Food Security Programmes among others.

Given the uncertainty over the long-term effects, the court pointed out that the principle of precaution well applies to the case. As it is used, the precautionary principle says that for a human activity project or program wherein science has no consensus yet, the government must take precautionary measures to mitigate its effects. In fact in some original wordings of the Wingspread Statement in 1998, it is often written that “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

It further points out that “the process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”

As such, the court said that the argument for the entry of biotechnology products to the country under Departmental Order No. 8 of the Department of Agriculture and Policy Statements is inadequate to overcome the precautionary principle. No law governs these types of activities and thus it asked the DENR to stop the testing.

Finally, since the effects of the field testing has wide ranging public policy relevance, specifically as regards its impact on prices, livelihood of farmers and their choice of food, the proponents should have undertaken to obtain public consent for the trial.

The practical impact of the CA ruling is that it put on hold the first step towards the commercialization of BT Talong in the country. Bt is Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium that possesses a crystal protein cry1AC, which has insecticidal property. It was genetically integrated in the eggplant to control fruit and shoot borer, a major pest of eggplant.

Bt talong found its way here in the Phillippines when the proponents of the project, University of the Philippines Los Banos Foundation, Inc. (UPLBFI); University of the Philippines Mindanao Foundation Inc. (UPMFI), and International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications Southeast Asia Centere (Isaaa) entered into a Memorandum of Undertaking with United States Agency for International Development (Usaid), Cornell University Biotechnology Support Project II and Maharastra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) for the multi-location field trial of Bt talong to determine the agronomic performance of this genetically modified crop. However, the proponents failed to establish that the field-testing would ensure environmental and human safety.

We should refuse to be used as testing grounds for foreign biotech products. The biosafety guidelines are not fully enforced as there is a lack of funds for ground monitoring and the regulators depend on the proponents for data. What our scientists should do is to call on this government to support our own agricultural research and development that encompasses socio-economic, ecological, cultural and ethical aspects.

We should also have strict biosafety legislation and an independent food and drug administration that can test and conduct experiments on their own so that we can truly build our own domestic capability in food and agriculture.

Ms. Cosico is an entomologist and is AGHAM’s agriculturist.


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