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A scientist’s take on SC’s decision on Bt ‘talong’

01:10 AM January 25, 2016

I READ the Supreme Court decision on Bt talong with much interest. Central to the issue is an understanding of scientific consensus and the “precautionary principle” in adjudicating legal questions.

A scientific consensus is a collective opinion of scientists, based on fact as established by the scientific method. This does not imply that there is no disagreement, only that the disagreement is insignificant and will likely not affect the validity of the scientific conclusion.

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The crux of the Supreme Court’s decision lies in applying the precautionary principle by appealing to scientific consensus. This principle and its parameters, which are in every freshman textbook on environmental science, were well qualified by the Court. However, the ethical application of the principle lies in the proper understanding of the uncertainty of scientific theories, and there cannot be a foregone conclusion that scientific consensus will not be achieved. Here it is very disadvantageous for science and Filipino society to cherry-pick scientific facts to support certain ideological positions.

Scientists are often conservative in interpreting their conclusions. This conservatism has been construed as a no-consensus on GMO safety. However, from further reading of the arguments on which the Court based its decision, it is apparent that the Court has taken an ideological line in considering the scientific facts. For there is scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs. On the other hand, there is very little evidence to conclude that GMO consumption is harmful to humans as based on the meta-analysis of more than 20 years of factual research. Thus the likelihood is that the conclusion is erroneous is small.

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The precautionary principle requires not just uncertainty but “substantial uncertainty” estimated by statistical methods, so that scientific applications with human safety concerns can be reasonably assured. The risks must be weighed against the rewards by using scientific methods. This criteria of reducing uncertainty is why some scientific conclusions on the harmfulness of GMOs have been reasonably rejected by the scientific community.

Most scientists recognize that there is good reason to maintain moderate skepticism regarding the claims and distrust of large biotechnology firms because of their obvious profit motives. This is part of the reasonable application of the precautionary principle. This, however, does not mean acceptance of the naturalistic fallacy that everything natural and untampered by human technology is necessarily “good.”

Scientists recognize the shortcomings of our science policy on regulation and the Court has rightly noted this. There is a need to strengthen regulations and ensure accountability among parties. However, while science policy is multi-dimensional involving political, social, moral and economic dimensions, among others, it should ultimately be based on scientific theory. And when there are gray areas in the applications of technology, scientific research should continue in order to further determine the risks.

BENJAMIN M. VALLEJO JR., associate professor of environmental science, and head, Science and Society Program, College of Science, University of the Philippines Diliman

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TAGS: Bt Talong, decision, letter, opinion, SC, Science, Supreme Court
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