By Nora O. Gamolo
Filipino environmentalists call for greater scrutiny of the country’s GMO approval system as they welcome the Philippines' Supreme Court decision to grant a writ of Kalikasan in favor of the petition to stop field trials of the genetically-modified organism (GMO) Bt eggplant (called Bt talong) in the Philippines.
A writ of kalikasan (or writ of nature) is a legal remedy under Philippine law available to individuals, groups, and organizations, on behalf of persons whose constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology is violated, or threatened with violation, by a private individual or entity, public official or employee.
It can be granted in cases that potentially or actually involve environmental damage of such magnitude as to prejudice the life, health or property of inhabitants in two or more cities or provinces.
Anti-GMO entities feel the writ has allowed them to higher objectives. Rep. Teddy Casino, a party list representative and one of the petitioners, tweeted that “The writ of kalikasan to stop Bt Talong tests is a step towards #GMOfreePH”, adding that he and other environmentalists have filed House Bill 5247 for a stricter ecolabelling of GMO-laced food products.
A myriad group of celebrities signed the petition filed April 26 that sought a temporary environmental protection order (TEPO) as a first step to stopping the multi-location field trials of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant that was genetically altered to incorporate a gene from the Bt bacteria, allowing it to produce its own pesticide.
Among the petitioners who sought a TEPO were former Senator Orlando Mercado, Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn, Rep. Teodoro Casiño, Dr. Charito Medina of the scientists and farmers group Magsasaka at Siyentipiko sa Pagpapaunlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), lawyers Harry Roque and Maria Paz Luna, scientists Dr. Ben Malayang III of Silliman University and Dr. Romeo Quijano of University of the Philippines College of Medicine, Leo Avila of the Davao City Agriculturist's Office, Catherine Untalan of Miss Earth Foundation, and activist-musician Noel Cabangon.
In seeking the writ, the petitioners highlighted the need for a genuine and comprehensive process of informing and consulting the public to ensure the safety of GMOs first on health and environmental grounds before they are released into the open.
“Greenpeace believes the granting of the writ of Kalikasan to be a recognition of the threats that GMOs pose to human health and the environment. We welcome this as a positive development,” said Daniel Ocampo, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner, Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
“GMOs and GMO field trials clearly violate every Filipino’s constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology, and their invasion into our fields and our diets must be stopped,” Ocampo added, saying that “The Supreme Court has given hope to Filipinos as its decision now puts into the spotlight the country’s flawed GMO approval system.”
Poor regulatory system
Greenpeace claims that the Philippine regulatory system for GMOs “has never rejected any GMO application, allowing dangerous GMO crops to be eaten and planted by Filipinos.”
“This is an outrage and such a regulatory system which clearly disregards public good must be scrapped,” Ocampo stressed, saying “there are serious uncertainties regarding the safety and long-term impacts of GMOs.
Greenpeace asserts that many independent scientific studies provide clear evidence that GMOs such as Bt eggplant, as well as Bt corn, can negatively impact the liver, kidneys or blood when ingested.
It further claimed that when planted in open fields, these man-made organisms have also been found to crossbreed with natural species, thus endangering biodiversity.
Last April 26, the environment group, along with fellow petitioners, filed a petition asking the Supreme Court for a writ of kalikasan and writ of continuing mandamus against GMO field trials.
A writ of continuing mandamus is a legal remedy under Philippine law available to injured persons when any agency or officer of the government unlawfully neglects the performance of an act, excludes another from the enjoyment of rights, and there is no other plain, speedy and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law.
Despite the scientific doubt and public insecurity that surrounds GMO food crops, Greenpeace claims the Philippine government has never rejected any GMO application. Since 2002, regulatory agencies have approved a total of 67 GMOs for importation, consumption and/or propagation.
Most of these GMOs are approved as food for Filipinos. Several varieties of Bt corn have already been approved for planting, and are now being eaten, despite questions on their safety.
Asserted Greenpeace, while other countries are taking the precautionary approach to GMOs because of the dangers they pose to human health and the environment, the Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) has done exactly the opposite, and must be held accountable.
The environment group believes that both the approval process and the regulators, such as the DA’s scientists, must be scrutinized. Greenpeace claims that the agency and scientists who regulate and approve GMOs are the same people who promote and propagate them and therefore seem to be serving the interests of multinational agro-chemical companies, rather than upholding public good.
“We hope that this writ of kalikasan will compel the DA and GMO regulators to review their agenda independent of pressures and influence of multinational GMO corporations. We are also calling on Filipinos to be more vigilant in protecting our food and calling on government to be accountable for regulations that go against protecting our health and environment,” Ocampo concluded.
UPLB asserts responsible research
Meanwhile, the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), a public service university that is at the forefront of biotechnology research and development in the country, maintains its support for the multi-location field trials of the fruit and shoot borer resistant Bt eggplant despite the petition filed by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and other anti-GMO groups against the experiment.
The UPLB administration stresses the importance of strengthening the transdisciplinary scientific approach to research and problem solving of the university, and calls on other sectors to support the continuation of the Bt eggplant field tests.
The Bt eggplant project, already in its 10th year of implementation, is UPLB's priority project in accord with its pro-people and pro-environment agenda.
The current field trials are being 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.
The objective of the project is to help advance the welfare of small farmers, the consumers, and the environment. There is absolutely no compelling reason to stop or delay the trials, especially at this time when the University is close to achieve the gains from substantial public investment in this project.
UPLB and the anti-GMO Greenpeace had a legal tussle when the group's members allegedly entered the contained area where the field trials of Bt eggplant are being conducted and uprooted and destroyed the specimen, resulting to the loss of valuable data.
UPLB filed a complaint against the perpetrators before the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor of Laguna. After finding probable cause the latter filed a criminal case for malicious mischief against them before the Municipal Trial Court of Bay, Laguna.
The present UPLB administration under Chancellor Rex Victor O. Cruz, remains committed to conduct unbiased field trials which are expected to generate empirical bases for establishing the environmental, ecological and economic impacts of this technology.
The University will continue to promote the safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology to achieve and sustain food security and a sustainable and safe environment. UPLB conducts the field trials in accordance with the biosafety guidelines issued by the NCBP and clearly stipulated in the Department of Agriculture Administrative Order No. 8 S-2002 which are compliant to the global biosafety standards under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, specifically the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
The UPLB administration assures the public that ecological balance and environmental safety are non-negotiable core values observed by the university in the conduct of research.
It calls on environmentalists to respect the rights of opinion of others, the diversity of ideas and opinions which all modern democracies guarantee, especially the academic freedom of a university like UPLB must be accorded the same respect and recognition.