Fear of science

- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - December 31, 2015 - 9:00am

ANAHEIM, California- Last Wednesday, I took up the banning of Bt talong or as it may seem from the court decision, any attempt at genetic engineering. The decision of the Court of Appeals which was sustained by the Supreme Court asserts that “we humans are not supposed to tamper with any one element in this swirl of interrelationships among living things in our ecosystems.”

That sounds like a sentence right out of a manifesto of radical environmentalists who would want us to all live like the Amish. Following the logic of this decision, we should stop all efforts to kill mosquitoes and just bear the consequence of malaria and dengue.

The antibiotic, a miracle cure for a variety of life threatening infections also alter this interrelationship between living things in our ecosystem. Should we stop using antibiotics altogether? There had been some abuse in the use of antibiotics in the poultry and livestock industry but that should not stop us from properly using antibiotics to heal sick people and animals.

Pesticides is another concern. Should we should just let our farmers lose a good part of their crops because using pesticides alters the interrelationship of living creatures in our ecosystem?

We can go on citing the absurd consequences of the Court decision against the testing of Bt talong. Indeed, without Bt talong, humans are subjected to more risks from the use of insecticides. It seems to me that this fear of genetic engineering a manifestation of a fear of science a lot of ordinary people seem to have.

I wonder if the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals understood the consequences of that decision on Bt talong.  When the SC permanently stopped the further field testing of Bt eggplant, it also nullified administrative orders of the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) which provide the rules and regulations for the importation and release into the environment of plants and plant products derived from the use of modern biotechnology.

This has disastrous immediate consequences to our food security. With the administrative orders nullified, there is no longer a valid basis for importing the millions of tons of GMO soybean meal which constitute a very significant part of the commercial feeds for our pigs, chickens and cows.

Unfortunately, as Dr. Emil Javier of UP Los Baños pointed out, practically all the soybean grown in the United States and Argentina from whom we import soybean meal are genetically modified. Our corn farmers will also no longer be allowed to plant GMO hybrid yellow corn which are very high yielding and profitable.

Last year, according to Dr. Javier, our farmers raised 830,000 hectares of GMO corn hybrids bioengineered with the same Bt gene bred into Bt eggplant to protect the corn plants from the dreaded Asiatic corn borer insect. So, in addition to soybean meal, the livestock sector must also find alternative sources of feed corn to replace the estimated 3.5 million tons of domestic GMO feed corn.

There are other dire implications if the SC decision were immediately executory. Dr. Javier said it means it will be goodbye for the modern poultry and livestock sector. What will be left are the ORGANIC free-range chickens and the backyard native pigs fed with kitchen slops, coconut and occasional sweet potatoes and banana stalks.

This is bad news, Dr. Javier said because with the most severe El Niño on record still in progress, affecting agriculture in most parts of the world, most agricultural commodities shall be in short supply. Indeed the UP scientist said, President Aquino should have declared a state of imminent (food insecurity) calamity like what Governor Joey Salceda did for Albay before Typhoon Nona.

Our judiciary overextended itself in handling an issue that is rightfully in the realm of the legislative and executive branches. How we deal with something as complex as agricultural research demands a wide public consultation and an extensive examination of the consequences of the ruling.

Congress must enact legislation — “to specifically address the concern for biosafety arising from the use of modern biotechnology which is deemed necessary to provide more permanent rules, institutions, and funding to adequately deal with this challenge.”

But we know this is not going to happen in an election year. The earliest a GMO law can be crafted could very well be in late 2017. That’s the bad news!

But Dr. Javier also said there is a not-as-bad news in the Supreme Court (SC) decision. “These not-as-bad news can be found in the concurring majority opinion of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen who clearly articulated that “. . . The results of this case are neither an endorsement nor a repudiation of genetically modified ingredients, processes and food products.”

Dr. Javier observed that “In an admirable display of judicial restraint Justice Leonen added … “We also need to be careful that the chambers of this Court do not substitute for the needed political debate or the analytical rigor required by truths in science.”

I can understand the concern of the usually soft spoken Dr. Javier. For one thing, he knows what he speaks of. He was at one time, the Director General of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center in Taiwan. That is an agricultural think tank that helped make Taiwan a significant producer of vegetables, which we even now import.

Dr. Javier, together with his colleagues at UP Los Baños have been among the world’s best in agricultural research. Indeed, sometime this year, it was reported that Bill Gates made a quiet visit to our country to specifically see what is going on in Los Baños, both the UP and IRRI.

Because of his exposure to world poverty through the work in the Gates Foundation, he is interested in feeding the world’s teeming population. Gates saw hope in what is being done right here in our own country.

Ground breaking work in genetic engineering is always controversial and it is proper for regulations to be enacted based on our understanding of the ethics of it all. But we must not let fear of science to cloud our judgment.

Being at peace with the various forces in our environment is a good thing. But contrary to what the Court of Appeals decision pointed out, God has given us full dominion over all the earth’s resources. Nowhere in Genesis did God say we cannot improve on what is already in nature. He gave us brains and we must use it to meet our needs. We just have to be wise and not cause undue damage overall.

Our problem now is that discussion on ecology and ecological balance has assumed a religious like tone. Environmental talibans have emerged and they are unreasonably uncompromising even on matters designed to serve humanity.

Often enough, it is difficult to get a decent conversation on matters like what were raised in Bt talong. I have seen such polarization in a similar discussion over nuclear power or reproductive health or stem cell reseach.

I sense a fear of science lurking in our midst. This keeps some of our best scientists frustrated and end up doing their best work abroad. But in the end, we must make sure the needs of the world’s growing population are met.

Or would it more desirable to have a severe famine kill off half of the world’s population based on the theory that the earth’s carrying capacity is finite and we have exceeded it? For our country, is it more ethical to ruin the livelihoods of our farmers by condemning them to traditional seeds for their crops?

Lucky for us we live in a country where we can have choices. No one is stopping anyone from buying so called organic vegetables and grains which would necessarily be more expensive. Our problem is that our food costs are already highest in the region, rendering the rest of our economy uncompetitive as higher labor costs must be paid the workers.

The irony is that the court decisions will inhibit our farmers from planting genetically engineered food crops but will force us to buy the same products abroad. We don’t have much of a choice. The big agricultural countries like the US and Argentina have shifted a large part of their produce to these same crops our courts ban. Again, it is a manifestation of our pitifully arrogant attitude that we are the center of the world and we are a self contained island insulated from whatever else is going on around us.

I wonder if this is another issuance of a Writ of Kalikasan that is more like an expression of sentiment of the court like the one ordering concerned government officials to clean up Manila Bay. While the general objective is good, at least for a press release, it is almost impossible to implement. What is worse with this Writ on Bt Talong is that is is also misguided and uninformed.

The folks in Los Baños, who have made it their life commitment to use science to help our people enjoy better qualities of life ought to be supported and encouraged. Roadblocks as this judicial decision drafted from the pages of the environmental talibans are the last thing they or the country needs.

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


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