SEARCA engages judiciary on biotech

A PHILIPPINE government-hosted intergovernmental treaty organization has engaged members of the judiciary during the annual biotech outreach of the United States Department of Agriculture-Foreign Agricultural Service Manila (USDA-FAS Manila) to provide members of the judiciary with "knowledge of the complexities and protocols of agri-biotech development."

Glenn Gregorio, Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) director, said the center was continuing its commitment to empowering members of the judiciary to create sound, unbiased, and evidence-based decisions and policy recommendations.

Gregorio said SEARCA teamed up with the Philippine Judicial Academy (PHILJA), the Philippine Association of Law Schools, USDA-FAS Manila, and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) for the "Forum on Improving the Policy Environment for Biotech Industry Development."

Held on July 14 at the Manila Diamond Hotel and online via Zoom, the forum gathered almost a hundred participants composed of judges, lawyers, law students and legal researchers on-site and online.

Gregorio said the forum aimed to equip members of the judiciary with knowledge of the complexities and protocols of agri-biotech development since these modern technologies are expected to be continually developed in the field.

During the event, he encouraged the participants to collaborate with lead experts and to be kept informed with updates in the field of biotechnology, its science, and its strategic importance and potential benefits for Filipinos, as well as related issues that can potentially usher in much-needed societal transformation, especially in the agricultural sector.

Rhodora Aldemita, ISAAA executive director, also expressed hope "to prepare the judiciary in crafting and approving policies and making science-based decisions for the acceptance and adoption of more biotech crops."

Aldemita said this would immensely contribute to poverty alleviation and a sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture sector in the Philippines, noting that activities like this keep the country's standing as "the premiere country in biotech adoption, biosafety regulation, and communication in the Asia-Pacific."

From the United States Embassy in Manila, Lorenzo New, the Environment, Science, Technology, Heath and Energy Unit chief, emphasized the need for an enabling policy environment for biotech.

"For innovation to flourish, biotechnology needs regulatory systems that not only uphold the highest standards of health and environmental safety but are flexible and follow the science," New said.

"These new technologies promise to speed up crop development, ensure farmers' accessibility to more sustainable solutions, and give consumers safe, affordable access to foods, but only if policy environments do not unnecessarily discriminate against their use," he added.

Also during the event, experts such as Kristine Tome from ISAAA provided a brief background on the status of biotech in the Philippines.

Leonardo Gonzales from Strive Foundation, Michael Leader from Bayer Australia, and Benigno Peczon from the Coalition for Agricultural Modernization in the Philippines or CAMP, spoke on several issues, including the socioeconomic implications of using unlicensed genetically modified corn seeds and the impact of the glyphosate ban and Writ of Kalikasan on crops.

Among the concerns raised during the open forum that served as a venue for participants to express their thoughts on the topics was the possibility that commercialized biotech crops could be deemed unsafe in the future.

For his part, Justice Jose Reyes Jr., chairman of the Special Areas of Concern and Professorial Lecturer from PhilJa, challenged the judiciary, lawyers, law students, and legal research staff to take an active role in helping improve the policy environment for biotech industry development. He added that they would be the critical link between biotech innovations in the laboratory and the homes of common Filipinos.