Scientists broke biosafety law in releasing Bt ‘talong’
Some scientists insist that Bt talong (eggplant) is “safe” and brand the Supreme Court—which banned the further release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the Philippine environment in a recent ruling—as “antiscience.” But the scientists who proposed to release the genetically modified vegetable into the environment broke the law that ensures the safety of such releases, the National Biosafety Framework (NBF).
Despite claims by scientists that Bt eggplant is completely safe, its proponents as well as regulatory agencies failed to conduct independent risk assessments as required by the NBF. Under the framework, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is required to conduct assessments on the impacts identified in biosafety decisions. The Supreme Court ruling quoted Carmelo Segui of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau, who admitted that the agency lacked funds and the competence to conduct these assessments.
Although not stated in the high court’s ruling, the NBF also requires other agencies to play a role in determining the impact of biosafety decisions on health and the socioeconomic situation, among others. For instance, the Department of Health is required to formulate guidelines in assessing the health impacts posed by modern biotechnology and its applications, and to require, review and evaluate results of relevant environmental health impact assessments. It is also required to take the lead in evaluating and monitoring processed food derived from or containing GMOs.
The NBF also mandates the Department of Trade and Industry to study the impact of GMOs and biosafety decisions on trade, intellectual property rights, investments and consumer welfare and protection. Also playing a role are the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, which are mandated to study such impacts on, respectively, indigenous peoples and communities, and the autonomy of local government units.
Before releasing GMOs into the environment, the NBF additionally requires that the public be informed and be allowed to decide if they want bacteria-infested foods into their digestive systems and their surroundings.
To comply with the legal requirement for public participation, Bt talong proponents simply posted a document the size of bond paper in barangay announcement boards. Then they asked the barangay captain and the municipal mayor to sign a certificate that public participation had taken place.
Yet the NBF specifies that all stakeholders “shall have appropriate access to information and the opportunity to participate responsibly and in an accountable manner in biosafety decision-making processes.” It requires all concerned government departments and agencies to exert all efforts to find consensus among all stakeholders, including farmers, women and indigenous peoples, using well-accepted methods such as negotiation, mediation and other appropriate dispute resolution processes. The consensus, to be achieved in a transparent and participatory manner, shall be based on the best available science and knowledge, and shall not compromise public safety and welfare.
The NBF lists the following minimum requirements of public participation: 1) notice to all concerned stakeholders, in a language understood by them and through the media to which they have access; 2) adequate and reasonable time frames; 3) public consultations, as a way to secure wide input into the decisions to be made; 4) mechanisms that allow public participation in writing or through public hearings, as appropriate, and that allow the submission of any positions, comments, information, analyses or opinions; and, most importantly, 5) consideration of public concerns in the decision-making phase following consultation and submission of written comments.
In addition, the NBF requires that the public be informed of the final decision promptly, have access to the decision, and be provided with the reasons and considerations resulting in the decision, upon request.
The Supreme Court assessed scientific evidence and concluded that there is “uncertainty, the possibility of irreversible harm and the possibility of serious harm” in releasing Bt talong into the environment.
Consequently, it upheld the constitutional right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology and said: Eggplant, a staple vegetable in the country, is grown by small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are poor and marginalized. While the goal of increasing crop yields to raise farm incomes is laudable, independent scientific studies revealed uncertainties due to unfulfilled economic benefits from Bt crops and plants, adverse effects on the environment associated with use of GM technology in agriculture, and serious health hazards from consumption of GM foods. For a biodiversity-rich country like the Philippines, the natural and unforeseen consequences of contamination and genetic pollution would be disastrous and irreversible.
Joy Angelica Santos Doctor is a lawyer previously involved in biosafety campaigns and food rights, and a former correspondent of Inquirer Northern Luzon covering Benguet. She is now a municipal judge in Bohol.