MANILA - A Supreme Court (SC) decision banning genetically-modified (GM) crops on grounds that the biosafety framework does not guarantee their safety to humans and the environment runs the risk of stunting research on food security, says National Scientist Dr. Ricardo Lantican, an expert on biotechnology.
Lantican pointed out that the High Court ruled on an issue beyond the original petition filed by Greenpeace Philippines and Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG, or Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development) before the Court of Appeals (CA), which had upheld the Writ of Kalikasan on the field trials of the genetically-modified organism (GMO) Bt Talong, or GM eggplant.
He explained that, when the magistrates opted to scrap Department of Agriculture Administrative Order No. 08 (DA-AO No. 8), series of 2002, which pertains to field release and commercialization of GM crops for direct use as food, feed and for processing, they had ruled, in effect, not only against Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant, which was the specific issue at hand, but the entire gamut of GM crops that could be subjected to field trials anywhere in the Philippines.
DA AO No. 8 is the country's National Biosafety Framework (NBF), which calls for tests of all GM crops under controlled conditions to determine their safety to humans and the environment as well as their propriety as both food for humans and feed for animals.
This NBF was the very same basis for the approval and commercialization of Bt corn in 2002, which is now cultivated in 750,000 hectares all over the country, with not a single case of harm to humans, animals and the environment reported, so far.
Lantican noted that the high court did not only opt to affirm the CA ruling but even went beyond the issue at hand by dumping DA AO No. 08 for being inadequate to prove with certainty that Bt eggplant would be risk-free.
Moreover, the Supreme Court sustained CA's ruling by noting that the NBF could not overturn the three conditions that compelled the tribunal to invoke the precautionary principle.
In brief, the court said the Bt eggplant supporters failed to make a convincing case about their certainty as to the safety of the crop.
Lantican argued: "Absolute or full certainty of safety is a non-existing state in nature that no natural phenomenon or human activity can claim to achieve."
"Nonetheless, as explained above, the Courts asked the wrong question on human safety at the field trial stage of Bt Talong. The SC went outside the envelope to cite the 'state of GMO research worldwide' in rationalizing its generalized conclusion about the uncertainty of GMOs, unmindful of the fact that there was not a single case of adverse effect on environment or human health attributed to Bt talong or to Cry1Ac protein in particular."
Lantican cited an opinion expressed by Justice Marvic Leonen: "The CA committed grave abuse of discretion when it took literature on Bt maize or Bt cotton ... and made conclusions without a rigorous explanation of its methodology and standards for credibility."
In effect, Lantican noted, the CA "acted whimsically, capriciously, and arbitrarily" by adopting the "hot tub" method which "obfuscated further an already complicated legal issue." The hot tub method involves multiple expert witnesses providing testimony at the same time, often together. The experts can challenge and quiz each another facilitating a dialogue between experts and the tribunal, with counsels' role sometimes limited to stating objections.
Worse, Lantican claimed, the magistrates relied only on the study of Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen in France, who reported that laboratory mice fed with Bt corn developed tumors when the same strain of mice used in the experiment had been highly susceptible to tumors even without being fed with Bt corn.
Seralini's study, owing to his method and choice of subject, had been thoroughly discredited in Europe to the extent that it forced Elsevier, which puts out peer-reviewed scientific papers, to withdraw his report.
"Clearly therefore, the SC was making a determination not just on the safety of the Bt talong field trials itself, but of GMOs in general, without the benefit of a rigorous fact-finding process, and declaring that the global debate is evidence of uncertainty applicable to Bt talong field trials," Lantican noted.
Savants have noted that Executive Order No. 514, issued in 2006 by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was explicit in stating the risk assessment principles that should guide decision-making.
"Lack of scientific, knowledge or scientific consensus shall not be interpreted as indicating a level of risk, absence of risk, or acceptable risk," EO 514 emphasized.
"The Risk Assessment shall be case-by-case and on the basis of transformation event. The required information may vary in nature and level of detail from case to case depending on the regulated article concerned, its intended use, and the receiving environment," it added.
"In view of the risk assessment principles reiterated above," Lantican underscored, "the nature and purpose of the Bt talong field trials, and global body of knowledge on the safety of Bt insecticidal protein and Bt crops in general, one wonders how the SC could rationally invoke the three conditions as being present to justify issuance of the writ."