Dark day for science
THE DECISION by the Philippines’ Supreme Court to uphold the ban on GMO Bt talong (eggplant) field trials is a huge disappointment to the scientific community and others pursuing the dream of sustainable and progressive agriculture in this country.
The Court upheld the Writ of Kalikasan originally demanded by Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups in 2012 and backed by the Court of Appeals in 2013. It also struck down the Department of Agriculture’s Administrative Order No. 8-2002, potentially throwing the Philippines’ GMO assessment and approvals system into unnecessary chaos.
The competence of the Court to adjudicate on matters of law is not in question. However, its judgment that the science on the question of Bt talong and GMOs in general is not settled appears highly skewed and very dependent on biased assessments submitted by Greenpeace and other groups with an overt antiscience agenda.
In effect, the Court has decided that Greenpeace and its fellow activists are more competent to pronounce on scientific matters than the Philippines’ National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) and the Departments of Agriculture and of Environment and Natural Resources. This is highly irregular, to say the least.
The ruling seems particularly bizarre given the shoddy evidence Greenpeace submitted in its original petition against Bt talong. Most of Greenpeace’s evidence was never published in scientific journals. Instead, it was commissioned and paid for by Greenpeace to serve its ideological battle against modern biotechnology.
In particular, a Greenpeace-funded study by a French anti-GMO academic, Giles-Eric Seralini, was a central component of evidence submitted to the Supreme Court. This asserted that Bt talong was unsafe for human and animal consumption, in contradiction to hundreds of high-quality safety studies conducted by reputable scientists internationally over the years, and an overall GMO safety consensus that is highly robust and supported by every major scientific academy in the world, including the NAST in the Philippines.
It is possible that the Court did not take into account that Seralini has been comprehensively discredited since his Greenpeace-funded report was written in 2009. In 2012 the same Seralini published a paper claiming to show that GMO maize caused cancer in rats. However, the methodology of his study was later judged by scientific reviewers to be unsound, and his paper was retracted by the journal that published it—a highly unusual move and fatally damaging to Seralini’s credibility as a scientist.
Unfortunately, Greenpeace—which, as a powerful multinational group, has a turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars annually—is used to getting its way. The same bogus science was also used by Greenpeace to bamboozle the Indian government into issuing a moratorium on Bt brinjal, the Indian version of Bt talong.
Greenpeace also uses criminal methods when it chooses—for example, vandalizing one of the Filipino field trials of Bt talong at UPLB in 2011. Ironically, its activists only succeeded in destroying nontransgenic plants, as they were unable to tell the difference in the field.
It is important to recall that the intent behind Bt talong is to reduce insecticide use. This would benefit farmers, consumers and the environment through reducing the exposure to toxic pesticides. Bt talong protects itself against the main insect pest, the fruit and shoot borer, using a bacterial protein that causes the insect to stop feeding. This is the same protein used by organic farmers and has a long history of safe use to humans and the environment.
In Bangladesh, where the government ignored attacks and legal machinations by anti-GMO activists, Bt brinjal is now fully commercialized and studies have found reductions in farmers’ pesticide use of 80 percent or more. It is peculiar that Greenpeace, which elsewhere campaigns against pesticide use, apparently aims in the Philippines to maintain farmers’ dependence on pesticides because of its superstitious approach to modern biotechnology in agriculture.
The success of Bt crops as a technology to reduce pesticide use is already evident in the Philippines, where Bt corn is currently planted over 800,000 acres and has been safely in the human food chain since it was first commercialized in 2003. Farmers report substantial cost savings as a result of reduced expenditure on insecticides on the biotech corn. Most of those benefiting are small resource-poor farmers cultivating corn on an average of just two hectares each.
Unless the Department of Agriculture can quickly reissue a new administrative order governing the introduction and assessment of GMO crops and foods, to replace the AO 8-2002 that was struck down by the Supreme Court, agricultural improvement in the Philippines will be very negatively affected. In particular, Golden Rice, which is intended to address vitamin A deficiency in malnourished children, could be held back. Golden Rice trials have also been vandalized in the field by many of the same anti-GMO activists who oppose Bt talong.
The Court’s decision is disappointing to scientists and antipoverty campaigners because the Philippines has always been a probiotechnology regional leader. While Greenpeace and other activist groups have, through a combination of vandalism and lawsuits, hampered agricultural scientific progress in countries from Thailand to India, the Philippines has stood out as an early adopter of modern science in farming that benefits society at large.
Let’s hope that the Philippine government and the scientific community can quickly deal with the issues raised by the Supreme Court, so the country’s progress in agricultural development is not held back by several years.
Mark Lynas is a British environmentalist, writer and visiting fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University.
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