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Science a sine qua non for human progress

12:06 AM January 13, 2016

Science is a soft—hence, often unheralded—infrastructure for progress. But much of history is about this dynamic, especially since the Industrial Revolution when science and technology (S&T) played an increasing role. Nations strive to invest in human capital, deemed a key factor in sustaining progress. In recent years, policy discourse has moved up to knowledge capital and innovation capacity for economies to be competitive in the global age. Some pundits have referred to them as the “suprastructure” needed for still higher levels of development.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban GMO Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) talong (eggplant) field trials represented a major setback to our S&T, particularly in agriculture, and, in its trail, the oft-repeated aspiration for inclusive growth. Irony of ironies for a country where all three areas (S&T, agriculture, inclusive growth) have been lagging behind its dynamic Asian neighbors, so the movement ought to be forward not backward.

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Talong is a readily-recognizable commodity but, perhaps, less widely known is that it’s a source of vitamins and minerals, and especially rich in fiber. “Eggplant farming involves 30,243 small-resource farmers, with average holdings of 0.7 hectare. It is the dominant vegetable in terms of areas cultivated and output… Bureau of Agricultural Statistics data (ca. 2010) showed that the eggplant areas harvested totaled 21,170 hectares, with Pangasinan, Nueva Ecija, Isabela, Cebu and Quezon as top producers. The volume was 200,942 metric tons, valued at P3.13 billion at current prices.” (Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture [Searca] based on www.biotechforlife.com.ph)

Eggplant farming is plagued not only by climatic aberrations but also by diseases and pests, the most mortal of which is the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) capable of wiping out virtually all of output, rendering farmers’ yield per hectare among the lowest in Asia. To counter FSB infestation, farmers have to use chemical pesticides that take up nearly 30 percent of production cost, besides being harmful to humans and animals, and the environment.

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According to Philippine Rice Research Institute’s Dr. Serge Francisco’s 2007 economic impact study, Bt talong cultivation can raise farmers’ incomes by about P50,000 per hectare owing to higher yield and production cost savings of 16 percent. At the same time, this biotech product with lower insecticide residue would be cheaper to consumers, encouraging thereby wider consumption of this healthful food.

An Inquirer column (1/4/16) tried to clarify that the high court’s decision did not make any scientific pronouncement. What it actually did, said lawyer Oscar Franklin Tan, “…was to nullify government GMO guidelines for lack of measures on risk management and transparency for stakeholders required by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which the Philippines signed… The decision clearly did not prohibit GMO testing per se. Its final section would allow GMO testing under new regulations with the required risk management and transparency.”

But according to Searca, the Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines, and Department of Science and Technology Biosafety Committee collaborate to formulate strict regulatory controls on Bt eggplant precisely to ensure safety to human and animal health, besides the environment, prior to commercialization. Moreover, an independent body known as the Scientific and Technical Review Panel, composed of scientists and experts from different fields, ensures the biosafety of the product, such that the Philippine biosafety modality is regarded a model by other countries.

National Scientist Dr. Emil Javier adds: “[T]he American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released in January 2015 the findings of the survey of US adult citizens and US-based members of AAAS. The survey showed that an overwhelming majority (88%) of scientists polled agreed that GM foods are generally safe. This statistic has a margin of error of 1.7%… [And while the] United States is not the universe but if 88% of the scientists surveyed belonging to the AAAS agree that GM crops are safe, that’s about as close as we can get to a scientific consensus. Incidentally, that’s a shade better than the 87% American scientists in the same survey who agree that climate change is occurring because of human activities.” (Manila Bulletin, 1/2/16)

With our own national protocol for bio-safeguards already in place, plus the near-consensus among US-based scientists and those of national academies of science in other countries, why would new regulations “on risk management and transparency for stakeholders” still be required for Bt talong?

It appears that our Supreme Court gave greater weight to the opinion of the petitioners, led by Greenpeace, among whose members may be scientists representing a minority, than to the views of the larger science community, led by the National Academy of Science and Technology, that is in agreement with scientists in other world academies of science. Allowing more space for hearing the defendants’ side could have given the high court a broader, more balanced perspective.

The ruling on Bt talong will have far-reaching ramifications—e.g., our food security is precarious and largely import-dependent. In particular, banning the planting of hybrid Bt yellow corn and importing Bt soybean meal that constitute the bulk of animal feeds would almost immediately lead to the downfall of our poultry and livestock sector.

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The decision is poignantly unfortunate for a country whose population is 104 million (conservative estimate for 2016) and growing fastest (1.9 percent), coupled with the highest poverty rate (25 percent), in Asean.

Ernesto M. Pernia, PhD ([email protected]), is professor emeritus of economics, University of the Philippines, and former lead economist, Asian Development Bank.

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TAGS: Bt Talong, eggplant, GMO testing, progress, Science, Technology
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