Science education for the legal sector

Atty. Dodo Dulay

Atty. Dodo Dulay

The Court of Appeals (CA) Special 4th Division appears to be reeling under a barrage of negative public reaction triggered by the court’s recent decision favoring the foreign lobby group Greenpeace in a suit against the community of Filipino scientists based in the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB).

It will be recalled that the CA, at the behest of Greenpeace, issued an order permanently stopping field trials for a genetically modified (GM) eggplant variety called Bt talong. According to the CA decision, our Filipino scientists failed to prove that Bt talong—a pesticide-free crop variety—is safe for humans and the environment.

The decision drew much flak for several reasons.

Among them is the fact that Bt talong had already gone through the regulatory process to determine its safety for both human consumption and the environment. It seems our courts are unfamiliar with the country’s decades-old executive and administrative rules and policies specifically addressing not only the environmental impact but also the safety of crop and food varieties developed through biotechnology. These rules and policies, as earlier explained by Food and Drugs Administration Director Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, conform with international protocols.

Long, tedious process
There has also been a long-established process for assessing and approving such varieties for public use and consumption. It is interesting to note that this process involves various government agencies and even practicing scientists both from the private and government sectors. This means the process is quite long and tedious.

The presence of practicing scientists also ensures that the process is mostly based on scientific data and empirical evidence rather than on rhetoric and fear mongering.

By declaring that the Bt talong was not proven safe to human health and ecology “with full scientific certainty”, the appellate court may have betrayed a lack of awareness and understanding not only of how science works but also of the scientific processes for determining the safety of biotech crops like Bt talong.

Because of this, the CA is now being faulted for apparently putting more weight on what the lobby group Greenpeace had to say. Unfortunately, in this country, Greenpeace is known more for headline-hugging stunts and threadbare rhetoric rather than for factual substantiation. It is also known as the avowed nemesis of Filipino scientists. To many Filipinos, proof of that unrelenting war by Greenpeace against Filipino scientists was the much-publicized assault and burning of a trial farm planted with Bt talong some two years ago.

Science does not prove, merely provides evidence
Perhaps our Filipino scientists ought to educate the members of the legal and judicial community that “science is a process.” Science does not “prove” anything. It merely provides evidence to support or refute a hypothesis or theory. And as all practicing scientists know, scientific theories can never be proven true. They can only be disproved.

Maybe now is the time for the country’s scientific community to engage the legal and judicial sector more actively. We lawyers are not scientists. But like scientists, we look for evidence.

But has the Filipino scientific community taken steps to enlighten those in the legal sector about the internationally accepted safety assessment processes and standards for gathering evidence on biotech crops like Bt talong?

Did our Filipino scientists go out of their way to keep the legal and judicial community abreast of the developments and advances in the field of modern agricultural biotechnology?

Did they exert enough effort to make the judiciary aware that there has long been a consensus in the international scientific community that biotech crops and food approved for release are safe? Or that there is no credible scientific study or evidence whatsoever showing that GM crops or foods are harmful to humans or the environment?

We do not fault the CA for giving more credence to Greenpeace than to our scientists. After all, the appellate court is not a scientific body.

Communication: the game changer
Moreover, activists like Greenpeace are often great communicators. In fact, communicating its extremist ideology to the public is what Greenpeace gets funded for. It’s possible that this Dutch lobby group has been more aggressive in engaging the legal and judicial community with its crisp anti-science rhetoric.

Maybe our scientists think that effective public relations is the least of their concerns. They have a point. Their job is to do science-based research. To conduct tests and gather data. To generate evidence that either supports or refutes a theory.

But these days, communication is the game-changer.

With its reported $350 million public relations war chest, Greenpeace may have really changed the game.

Unless our scientists are able to effectively disseminate the scientific truth about biotech crops and foods, many will continue to fall for the doomsday scenarios that Greenpeace feeds us.

Already, the CA decision may be one of the ominous signs that unfounded fear and pseudo-science may have triumphed by default.


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