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FIRST IN THE WORLD | Supreme Court bans development of genetically engineered products

The online news portal of TV5

MANILA - Voting unanimously Tuesday, the Supreme Court en banc expanded the Court of Appeals’ writ of kalikasan (environment) order that permanently stopped the field trials of Bt talong, a genetically modified eggplant engineered with a bacterium to deter pest insects.

Aside from affirming the halting of Bt talong testing, the high tribunal stopped the use, testing, propagation, commercialization, and importation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) after it nullified the Department of Agriculture’s regulating GMO use.

It ordered the use of GMOs “temporarily” stopped until the agriculture department promulgates new rules that will more sufficiently comply with the country’s biosafety framework and international protocols.

The temporary ban includes the highly controversial Golden Rice, an experimental project by International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that is currently back at the laboratory stage due to poor performance. 

The high court in that decision cited the lack of scientific certainty in stopping GMO use, saying that it had to rule in the benefit of the environment amid the lack of safety guarantees.

The ruling earned the praise of farmers, consumers, environmental organization Greenpeace Southeast Asia, scientists’ group Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (Masipag), and other petitioners. They called the decision “a major victory for Filipino farmers.”

'Concern' over ruling's impact on food security, micronutrient drive

On the other hand, the Los Banos-based IRRI expressed “concern” over the decision.

In a statement sent to BusinessWorld, the IRRI expressed reservations about the ruling, concern it said was based on “the best scientific knowledge and evidence.”

Yet, in response to BusinessWorld’s queries how it affects the development of better rice varieties at the institute, the statement read: “We, of course, remain committed to abiding by the laws and regulations of the Philippines and of every country in which we do collaborative research.”

As soon as the institute obtains the full copy of the decision, it said it will read it carefully “to take stock of all implications” on biotechnological research.

One of the products that may be affected by the Tuesday ruling is Golden Rice, a genetically engineered variety developed at the IRRI.

The rice strain was designed to produce beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A) and address vitamin A deficiency, which may lead to blindness and thousands of deaths among children.

“It is the poorest and most vulnerable groups, especially women and children, whose health and well-being are most negatively affected by the scourge of micronutrient deficiency,” the IRRI noted.

Landmark decision

The Supreme Court decision sets a global precedent as it is the first legal decision on GMOs in the Philippines using the writ of kalikasan (environment) - a legal environmental remedy found only in the Philippines. The court is also the first in the world to adopt the precautionary principle - that it is best to err on the side of caution in the absence of scientific consensus - regarding GMOs in their decision.

The decision of the high court means that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Science and Technology are barred from issuing any approvals for genetically modified (GM) crops pending the crafting and approval of a new administrative order.

The court order would also have an impact on the trading of GM crops. In 2014, the US exported $784 million worth of GM crops and products to the Philippines.

“It is high time that the Philippine government also looks at new, innovative, and science-based ecological farming,” says Virginia Benosa-Llorin, Food and Ecological Agriculture Campaigner Greenpeace Southeast Asia - Philippines.

The Supreme Court affirmed the May 2013 Court of Appeals order for the government to prepare an immediate plan of action to rehabilitate field trial sites and protect, preserve, and conserve the environment, and recommend policies and measures to reform the present regulatory process.

The petitioners to the case are: Greenpeace Southeast Asia (Philippines), Magsasaka Siyentipiko sa Pagpapaunlad ng Agrikultura (Masipag), Rep. Teodoro Casino, Dr. Ben Malayang III, Dr. Angelina Galang, Mr. Leonardo Avila III, Ms. Catherine Untalan, Atty. Maria Paz Luna, Mr. Juanito Modina, Mr. Dagohoy Magaway, Dr. Romeo Quijano, Dr. Wency Kiat, Atty. H. Harry Roque Jr., Former Sen. Orlando Mercado, Mr. Noel Cabangon, Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn, and Mr. Edwin Marthine Lopez.