Bt talong field testing: A boon or health threat?

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Are genetically modified organisms (GMO), widely used in food crops in 34 countries, poisonous to the human body if ingested? The debate on this question, which started in 1996, hasn’t been resolved.

In the Philippines the debate – focused on the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) – is now in its second round in over a decade.

The first round (2002-2005) was over its use in corn production (Bt corn), then under field testing. Though unresolved, the debate was rendered moot after the Arroyo government approved the testing and dissemination of Bt corn. It’s now mainly produced in Pangasinan and South Cotabato.

The second concerns field-testing of its use in eggplants (Bt talong). Sixteen heads of professional scientific societies supporting the tests refer to the eggplant as “the Philippines’ most important vegetable.”

On April 26, 2012, various groups, led by Greenpeace Southeast Asia (Phl), asked the Supreme Court for “a writ of kalikasan and of continuing mandamus.” The petitioners urged the SC to issue a temporary environmental protection order (TEPO) to stop field-testing Bt talong in 9 areas in the country.

The tests, say the petitioners, “violate or threaten to violate the right of the Filipino citizens to a balanced and healthful ecology.” They raised the issue to the level of the people’s right, beyond the technological-scientific considerations.

On May 2, 2012, the SC issued a writ of kalikasan and sent the petition to the Court of Appeals for hearing on the scientific and factual questions raised. The CA Special 13th Division, which conducted the hearings, posed the issue thus:

“The proponents of biotechnology claim that it is high time that the beneficial technologies are introduced in our country. Those who are against them, on the other hand, argue that we would soon experience an ecological crisis should we allow these developments to influence our way of living.”

Lengthy arguments, pro and con, were reviewed by the court (there is not enough space to dwell on them here).

Last May 17, the CA division granted the petition. It directed the respondents, led by the University of the Philippines Los Banos (in cooperation with USAID, among others) to do the following:

1. Permanently cease and desist from further conducting Bt talong field trials; and

2. Protect, preserve, rehabilitate and restore the environment in accordance with the court judgment.

 The UPLB has announced it would file a motion for reconsideration, vowing to “exhaust all possible legal options” to reverse the decision. Yet it pins hope on its arguments that the field-trials were “responsibly and safely undertaken… in compliance with the biodiversity requirements and guidelines approved by the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines and the Bureau of Plant Industry of the Department of Agriculture.”

Petitioner organizations and allied groups within the Resistance and Solidarity Against Agrochemical TNCs last Wednesday hailed the CA for its “landmark decision.” They exhorted the court to uphold “its mandate in protecting the people’s right to health and a balanced and healthful ecology.”

“The (CA) has based its decision on the fact that there was no full scientific certainty on the effects of Bt talong on human health and the environment,” noted Romeo Quijano, a medical doctor specializing in toxicology at UP-Manila. No independent tests were conducted in that regard, he added, as the trials sought only “to test the efficacy and agricultural performance of the product.”

It would be impossible to recall GMOs once released in the environment, warned Quijano, who also opposed the field-testing and dissemination of Br corn. “As living organisms,” he pointed out, “they are capable of reproduction and the possibility of escape from field trials is real.” He cited the cases of the Liberty Link Rice and GM wheat that “have escaped field trials and have contaminated our food system.”

Chito Medina, environmental scientist belonging to the farmer-scientist group Masipag, praised the CA for emphasizing that “even if there were existing regulations governing GMO adoption, these should undergo public scrutiny given the irreversible and extensive damage GMOs may cause.” The public, he urged, must be given the right to information on such effects so that they can arrive at an informed decision on whether to accept GMO products.

Medina chided “government agencies and their scientists” who, in plugging for Bt talong, “downplay new data and information presented by independent scientists, experts and institutions on the possible dangers of Bt talong.”

“This decision is a victory for the farmers and consumers calling for a safe and sustainable way of producing food,” according to outgoing Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano, national chairperson of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas. It’s also a strong warning against agrochemical transnationals, he added, specifying Monsanto and Syngenta, “that created these GMOs (and) have been profiting from seed patents, while evading responsibility for damages caused by GMOs.”

Regarding Bt corn, Mariano observed that more farmers have become indebted because of hiked farm-input costs. “Bt corn seed price doubled, along with prices of fertilizers and chemical inputs.”

Mariano has filed a bill that would strictly regulate GMO field-testing, but like a good seed landing on barren soil, it has not prospered.

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