The invasion of Bt talong and other GMOs
It’s Farmers’ Week, and it’s the appropriate occasion to call attention to the dangers posed by genetically engineered crops in the Philippines.
Genetic engineering (GE) is a very new technology, its commercialization having begun only in the 1990s. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living things that have been conferred qualities or traits that they do not naturally have, and this is achieved through the random insertion of one or a few genes from another organism into the host organism’s genetic make-up in a way that can never happen in nature.
Why GMO’s are Controversial
GMO’s are very controversial. The first reason is that genetic engineering disrupts the precise sequence of genetic codes and disturbs the functions of neighboring genes, which for food, may give rise to potentially toxic or allergenic molecules or even alter the nutritional value of food produced. An example of this is that the Bt toxin being used in GMO corn, for example, was recently detected in the blood of pregnant women and their babies, with possibly harmful consequences.
A second reason has to do with genetic contamination. A GMO crop, once released in the open, reproduces via pollination and interacts genetically with natural varieties of the same crop, producing what is called genetic contamination. An example of this is Bt corn, which was reported in a study published in Nature, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, to have contaminated indigenous varieties of corn in Oaxaca, Mexico.
A third reason is that a GMO, brought into natural surroundings, may have a toxic or lethal impact on other living things. Thus, it was found that Bt corn destroyed the larvae of the monarch butterfly, raising well grounded fears that many other natural plant and animal life may be impacted in the same way.
A fourth reason is that the benefits of GMOs have been oversold by the people or companies that benefit economically from it, like Monsanto or Syngenta. Most genetically engineered (GE) crops are either engineered to produce their own pesticide in the form of Bacillus thurengiensis (Bt) or are designed to be resistant to herbicides, so that herbicides can be sprayed in massive quantities to kill pests. It has been shown, however, that insects are fast developing resistance to Bt as well as to herbicides, resulting in even more massive infestation by the new superbugs. There is also no substantial evidence that GM crops yield more than conventional crops; in fact several scientific studies have proven that the opposite is true. What GM crops definitely do lead to is higher pesticide use, which is harmful both to humans and the planet.
Bans on GMOs
Owing to the dangers and risks posed by genetically engineered organisms, many governments have instituted total or partial bans on their cultivation, importation and field testing. A few years ago, there were 16 countries that had GMO bans. Now there are at least 26, including Switzerland, Australia, Austria, China, India, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Italy, Mexico and Russia. Significant restrictions on GMOs exist in about 60 other countries.
Restraints on trade in GMO’s based on phyto-sanitary grounds, which are allowed under the World Trade Organization, have increased. Already, American rice farmers face strict limitations on their exports to the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and bans from Russia and Bulgaria because unapproved GE rice “escaped” during open-field trials on GMO rice. Thai exports to Europe, particularly canned fruit salad/fruit cocktail containing papaya to Germany, and sardines in soy oil to Greece and the Netherlands, were banned due to threat of contamination by GMOs. And, closer to home, Japan stopped importation of organic corn from Ifugao following news that the corn was contaminated by GE corn.
Stopping Bt eggplant
In the Philippines, a major step forward in controlling GMOs took place on May 17, 2013, when the Court of Appeals granted the writ of kalikasan sought by Greenpeace and other appellants. This ordered the cessation of field testing of Bt talong, or Bt eggplant, on the following grounds:
- there is no scientific consensus on the safety and impacts of Bt talong;
- there is no Congressional enactment that governs introduction, release, experimentation of GM crops like Bt talong;
- precautionary principle is applicable in the light of uncertainties and inadequacy/ineffectiveness or current regulatory system; and
- Bt talong, with its social, economic and environmental impacts, should not be entrusted to scientists only but should also involve all stakeholders.
Overhauling the regulatory framework
Despite the global trend against GMOs and the Court of Appeals’ granting of a writ of kalikasan, the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry has become more and more liberal in its granting of licenses. It has allowed the importation of 60 genetically modified plants and plant products for direct use as food and feed or for processing, an additional eight GM plant varieties for propagation, and 21 GM plant varieties for field-testing in Philippine soil. No GMO application has ever been rejected, which is rather shocking given the controversial character of GMOs.
This record underlines how much our bio-safety regulatory framework needs a major overhaul. One major flaw of the current regulatory process institutionalized in Administrative Order No. 8, issued under the previous administration, is the extremely lax procedures for risk assessment, the main responsibility for which is placed on the applicant, who will naturally emphasize technical studies and opinions that favor the application. The kind of rigorous testing by a truly capable, independent body is at present not available, making risk assessment dangerously dependent on GE multinationals like Monsanto and Syngenta or local scientists with close links to them.
Two critical steps
In the interest of consumer welfare, public health and ecological stability, two immediate steps are critical.
– First, a moratorium on granting licenses for the import of GMO foods and crops for sale or for field-testing until there is created a viable risk assessment agency under the Department of Agriculture that would do rigorous, independent testing of all GMOs for which licenses are submitted;
– Second, a ban on all field-testing of all GMO crops to prevent genetic contamination. This does not mean that biotechnological research cannot be carried out. It can, but strictly within well -ealed laboratories that will radically minimize the possibility of genetic escape.
GMOs and the precautionary principle
Will biotechnology eventually bring more good than harm? I am skeptical about this. Since many of the genes now being introduced into food-producing organisms are derived from organisms that have never been part of the human food supply, we have very incomplete knowledge of how humans will respond to the effects of these genes in their and whether such food is appropriate for our species. Equally important, we know very little about the impacts these organisms have on the environment because they are products not of millions of years of evolution but of profit-oriented research, the beginnings of which only took place some 20 years ago. Given these considerations, we need to exercise the well-established scientific principle called the Precautionary Principle, which means we must not allow the propagation, commercialization and importation of the products of biotechnology unless they have been subjected to intensive and extensive risk assessment, under a wide variety of conditions, even if such a risk assessment were to take many years, if not decades.
With GE crops growing ever more controversial, the advice of the country’s prime authority on biotechnology, UP Los Baños Vice Chancellor Dr. Oscar Zamora, is refreshing: “For every application of genetic engineering in agriculture in developing countries, there are a number of less hazardous and more sustainable approaches and practices with hundreds, if not thousands, of years of safety record behind them. None of the GE applications in agriculture today are valuable enough to farmers in developing countries to make it reasonable to expose the environment, farmers and the consumers to even the slightest risk.”
*This commentary is a slightly revised version of a privilege speech in the House of Representatives delivered recently by the author to mark World Food Day.
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