STATEMENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF THE PHILIPPINES LEAGUE OF AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY STUDENTS (UP LABS) ON ISSUE AGAINST THE ISSUANCE OF A PERMANENT WRIT OF KALIKASAN AGAINST Bt TALONG MULTI-LOCATION FIELD TRIALS
The University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), through the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), had been conducting field trials of Bt talong from 2010-2012. In April 2012, a petition was made to the Philippine Supreme Court which sought a Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO), and the issuance of a Writ of Kalikasan and a Writ of Continuing Mandamus to stop the field trials of Bt eggplant. Petitioners were Greenpeace – Southeast Asia along with Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya (SIBAT), Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc., Pilipina Pilipina, Consumer Rights for Safe Food, Miriam Peace, Sarilaya, Lingkod Tao Kalikasan, SEARICE, NO2GMOs Philippines, NASSA, and TFIP. Named respondents were the University of the Philippines Los Baños Foundation Inc. (UPLB-FI), Environmental Management Bureau of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (EMB-DENR), Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority-Bureau of Plant Industry (FPA-BPI), UP Mindanao Foundation Inc., and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications-Southeast Asia Center (ISAAA). In May 2012, the Supreme Court decided to grant a Writ of Kalikasan in favor of the petition and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for reception of evidence, hearings, and decision. The Supreme Court however did not grant a TEPO. UP Los Baños was subsequently added as respondent to the case. Respondents petitioned the Court of Appeals asking for the case to be dismissed, one of the grounds being that it is already “moot and academic” since the trials had been completed/terminated. The respondents’ petitions were denied and the case went to trial.
In May 2013, the Special 13th Division of the Court of Appeals in Manila, the Philippines, issued a ruling to grant the Writ of Kalikasan, a legal remedy designed for the protection of one’s constitutional right to a healthy environment, and ordered respondents to permanently stop further confined field trials of Bt talong because these allegedly pose risks to human health and the environment. The CA found that “precautionary principle” was relevant and used it as the reference to give a final decision to the case. The CA also saw that there was a lack of “safety net” on the biosafety guidelines used for risk management of the Bt talong project to ensure the safety of the people, and safety of the environment against uncertain risk hazards. They argued that aside from Executive and Administrative Orders, no public policies and laws of the land regarding the regulation guidelines have been passed in the People’s Congress.
Precautionary principle is a rule stated in the Section 1 of the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases, which says that the court may use the Precautionary principle in a case, if “there is a lack of full scientific certainty in establishing a causal link between human activity and environmental effect” and if there are: 1) threats to human life or health; 2) inequity to present or future generations and; 3) prejudice to the environment without legal consideration of the environmental rights of those affected (as stated in Section 2).
BACKGROUND OF Bt TALONG
Bacillus thuringensis (Bt) talong is a genetically modified variety of eggplant that produces its own insecticidal protein to ward off fruit and shoot borers. It is an eggplant inserted with a gene that produces Cry1Ac protein, which inhibits the growth of the fruit and shoot borer larvae. It is similar to the commercially planted Bt corn, containing a gene from B. thuringiensis expressing Cry 1Ac protein that can kill the eggplant fruit shoot borer upon ingestion of tissues of the Bt talong. B. thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium, has a long history of use as a microbial insecticide spray on vegetable crops and accepted by organic farmers. However, microbial spray is not effective against EFSB hence farmers rely heavily on the use of inorganic insecticides for control. We have known that prolonged use and exposure to insecticides result to excessive environmental and health costs to the farms and farming families. The Bt talong project is now on its 11th year of implementation, and one of the priority projects of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), particularly the Crop Science Cluster (CSC) -Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB). This project aims to produce a pro-people and pro-environment variety of eggplant that have the potential to increase yield, improve incomes, reduce dependence on pesticide use especially chemical pesticides, and enhance consumer choice in the marketplace. The already-completed field trials in various strategic locations in the Philippines were cautiously and responsibly taken care of by the researchers and scientists involved in the project, and were meticulously policed by the Institutional Biosafety Committee and a representative from the Department of Agriculture, specifically the Bureau of Plant Industry, in accordance with DA Administrative Order No. 8 and Executive Order No. 514.
In line with our Principles and Objectives to promote and enrich Biotechnology in our country’s Agriculture as a promising solution to the emerging challenges in different fields, the UP League of Agricultural Biotechnology Students (UP LABS) stand firm in support of the Bt talong Project along with other biotechnology researches conducting multi-location field trials.
We believe that the field trials conducted by the scientists and researchers could help support the claim that Bt talong is substantially equivalent to its non-GM counterpart. The field trials that have been conducted may disprove the argument of Apellate Associate Justice Isaias P. Dicdican. In an issue of Inquirer, he has made a comment on the CA’s decision that “there is no full scientific certainty yet as to the effects of the Bt talong field trials on the environment and the health of the people.” We believe that the “precautionary principle” was misapplied in this case, for we know that the risk management done by the scientists and researchers are safely, faithfully, and responsibly used as strictly prescribed in DA Admin. Order No. 8 and E.O. No. 514, and fully consistent with the international biosafety standards of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, specifically the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Acquiring pertinent data to these tests are crucial to assessing and establishing the safety of Bt talong before it can even be considered for possible commercial use. Once approved for commercial release, it will improve the profit of the farmers, lessen chemical pesticide usage, maximize land area due to higher yield, and increase public awareness of the benefits that can we get from transgenic crops. The anti-GMO presented research studies against the harmful effects of Bt talong in the eyes of the court. However, these studies were mostly conjectures and not publicly disclosed to the scientific community to test their validity. Yes, as of this writing, the overall safety of Bt talong is still being studied. But the question is, how will we know that Bt talong is substantially equivalent to its non-GM counterpart, if we will stop the scientific protocol of the project that may help prove the transgenic eggplant free from environmental, food, and health hazards? Let us always put in mind the reason why we conduct research – if we always misapply the precautionary principle in scientific cases in the Philippines, as far as scientific research is concerned, most of the researches (e.g. Golden Rice, virus resistant and delayed-ripening papaya, and Bt cotton) will come into halt. Indeed, all technology development may come to a halt. In the very nature of every scientific research, risks are inevitable and these risks would require critical assessment and handling. Risks are the reason why there are regulations in the first place, and strict and proper regulations are there so any perceived risk is precluded. Yes, there is a risk that these things may be harmful but we believe that if these uncertain risks will be carefully and religiously administered, we can control the inevitable effects of these uncertain risks. We believe that the Court decision was purely based on political and social reasons. With all due respect to the politicians and groups however, we believe that this is a scientific research. We recognize each and everyone’s rights to express their views on this project but so far, hasty conclusions and generalizations have been made regarding this project. We call for anti-GMO groups to let the scientists and scientist communicators explain this in an intellectual debate in order for the public to decide on the matter. We commend these scientists for investing their efforts in the advancement of biotechnology for food security.
We believe that the biosafety framework guidelines of the Philippines are very strict, comprehensive, and constitutionally bounded which is contrary to the allegations of the anti-GMO groups. We believe that the field trials done were “responsibly and safely undertaken together with scientific organizations and partner state universities, in compliance with the biosafety requirements and guidelines approved by national regulatory bodies such as the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP), and the Bureau of Plant Industry of the Department of Agriculture (DA).” The biosafety framework of the Philippines is widely acknowledged as a model among Asian and other developing countries. The biosafety framework guidelines made by the inter-department agency was in strict compliance and consistent with international biosafety standards under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, specifically the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The Philippines’ Guidelines for Biosafety encompass the mandate of the constitution to uphold public participation, transparency, and consensus as principles in reaching biosafety decisions. Upon the creation of the NCBP by 1990 by virtue of Executive Order 430, and the establishment of the National Biosafety Framework by Executive Order 514. The Philippines has approved few living modified organism (LMO) to be commercially released. It is also the same biosafety guideline framework implemented for the Bt corn and RR corn which are the most widely utilized transgenic crops approved for propagation in the Philippines. However, despite of numerous commercially released LMOs in the Philippines especially the Bt corn, we are still puzzled with the logical reason why the Anti-GMO groups actively and selectively push Bt talong to be stopped? Furthermore, the elective ban is directed towards crops with pesticide-related properties. The country has active research using GM technology on other important crops and traits. In the Philippines, approvals from the Department of Agriculture (DA) and Department of Science and Technology (DOST) are needed to conduct laboratory trials. Unlike in the US, their Agriculture Department is the only agency responsible for assessing and approving applications for laboratory trials.
We appeal to the responsible government agencies – DOST, Biosafety Clearing House of the Philippines (BCH) and DA-Biotech Program, DA-BPI, DENR, and others to widely disseminate the Philippines’ biosafety guidelines to the public. The concerned departments must conduct intensive scientific education on biotechnology awareness, to fight misinformation done by the Anti-GMO groups. The UP LABS is willing to extend its hand to any biotechnology awareness campaign conducted by the DOST, DA, and other government and non-government agencies (NGOs) to make this advocacy successful.
UP LABS calls for unbiased media coverage on the said issue. The media plays an important role in disseminating the objective and unbiased information which Filipinos need to know. Thus, the organization hopes that the media would attain enlightenment, and observe open-mindedness on the issue. We call for the media to give equal opportunities to both sides to give statements. Let public debates be done (aired through mass media), to provide Filipinos basis for decision-making regarding the Bt talong case.
Ultimately, with the help of our professors, advisers, university officials and researchers, UP LABS will continue disseminating accurate information to the Filipino people who deserve information on the transgenic crops that directly affect their health. We firmly believe that the truth behind this project should prevail.
**The University of the Philippines League of Agricultural Biotechnology Students (UP LABS) is a duly recognized academic organization that unifies all students who are taking up the Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. The organization promotes academic excellence amongst its members and at the same time it helps raise awareness about biotechnology in the Philippines. It believes that biotechnology can be a tool to raise our country’s level of competency when it comes to various fields especially in agriculture, without sacrificing the safety in each entity which is developed through biotechnology.
Court of Appeals Special Thirteenth Divison. 2013. GREENPEACE – SOUTHEAST ASIA et. Al vs. ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT BUREAU OF THE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES (EMB-DENR) et. Al Decision.
DA-Biotech Program. 2013. Greenpeace trespassed against academic freedom. Biotech for Life Journal. Biotechnology For Life Media and Advocacy Resource Center Advocacy House, 2F 8 Scout Chuatoco St., Quezon City, Philippines
Philippine Task Force for Indigenous People’s Rights. 2013. IP support calls vs. Bt talong
Purugganan, M. 2013. Who’s afraid of the GMO eggplant?
Tuklasin Natin. 2012. UPLB Assures Bt Eggplant Trials Are Safe And Beneficial.
Yap, D. J. and Aning J. 2013. Court of Appeals stops field trials of genetically modified eggplant.