CA stops commercial growing of GMO crops

GOLDEN GRAIN The Golden Rice, shown in this 2019 photo from the International Rice Research Institute, is genetically engineered to contain additional levels of betacarotene to ease Vitamin A deficiency among consumers. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

GOLDEN GRAIN The Golden Rice, shown in this 2019 photo from the International Rice Research Institute, is genetically engineered to contain additional levels of betacarotene to ease Vitamin A deficiency among consumers. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — The Court of Appeals (CA) has issued a cease-and-desist order on the commercial propagation of two genetically modified crops—Golden Rice and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) eggplant—over the lack of “full scientific certainty” on the impact of these food products.

In a 143-page decision on April 17, the appeals court ruled in favor of the petitioners led by Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad Agrikultura (Masipag) and Greenpeace Southeast Asia, as it revoked the biosafety permits issued by the government to the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice).

READ: LGUs urged to oppose GM crops propagation after SC grants writ of kalikasan

The CA acted on the groups’ petition for a temporary environmental protection order, which was originally filed before the Supreme Court on Oct. 17, 2022. Named respondents are the secretaries of the Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and the Department of Health (DOH); the director of the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI); PhilRice; and UPLB.

On April 18, 2023, the Supreme Court issued a writ of kalikasan—a legal remedy for persons whose constitutional right to “a balanced and healthful ecology” is violated—and required the respondents to file a verified return of the writ.

In another resolution on June 13 of that same year, the high tribunal referred the case to the CA for acceptance of the returns and hearing, reception of evidence, and rendition of judgment.

In its ruling, the CA granted the petitioners the privilege of the writ of kalikasan to the petitioners, as well as the writ of continuing mandamus, which ordered the concerned respondent government agencies to submit their enhanced risk assessment and procedures in monitoring activities related to genetically modified organisms (GMO), mainly plant and plant products derived from modern biotechnology.

‘Precautionary principle’

According to the CA, the evidence presented compelled the application of the “precautionary principle” under Rule 1, Section 4(d) of the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases.

The principle provides that “when human activities may lead to threats of serious and irreversible damage to the environment that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that threat.”

“After a judicious examination of the evidence on record, this Court finds that the three conditions for the precautionary principle to apply: uncertainty, the possibility of irreversible harm, and the possibility of serious harm, are present in the case,” the CA said.

It cited the opinion of expert witnesses for all parties based on their judicial affidavits, the numerous studies submitted in evidence, and their testimonies.

According to the court, “no consensus” was reached on the safety or harmful effects of Golden Rice and Bt eggplant on humans and the environment.

“To reiterate, the burden of evidence of harm is placed on those desiring to change the status quo, who, in this case, are the respondents,” the court said.

“While it may be argued that the trials on Golden Rice and Bt eggplant were conducted precisely to determine the effects or risks of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), as well as to obtain data and information thereon, it must be equally remembered that the overall safety guarantee thereof is still unknown,” the CA added.

Field trials

Golden Rice is genetically engineered to contain additional levels of beta-carotene to mitigate Vitamin A deficiency among consumers.

It was patented by transnational agrochemical corporation Syngenta and was first developed in 1999 by Ingo Potrykus, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany. It was developed through genetic engineering using genes from corn and a common soil microorganism that together produce beta-carotene in the rice grain.

In 2017, the Nueva Ecija-based PhilRice and the International Rice Research Institute in Laguna filed applications with the BPI to conduct field trials and for direct use as food, feed, or processing of Golden Rice.

Despite opposition from various groups, the BPI issued consolidated reports for the field trial and direct use of Golden Rice in 2019.

In July 2021, the DA approved the propagation of Golden Rice in 17 pilot areas across the country.

But according to Masipag, data shows that the beta-carotene content of Golden Rice is meager and inconsistent and that “a wide array of safe and low-cost vegetables, fruits and other crops would be a more dependable source of nutrition for the communities.”

Meanwhile, Bt eggplant, which is owned and licensed by UPLB, was developed using genetic engineering procedures to provide resistance against eggplant fruit-and-shoot borer pests.

In 2009, UPLB applied for a field trial of the GMO before the DA, which issued the biosafety permit in 2010. Bt eggplant was designed so that the plant itself would produce its own toxin to kill the common pests that damage eggplants. It was first developed by the Indian Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. and was then developed in the Institute of Plant Breeding at UPLB.

However, environmental groups and individual advocates also objected to the field testing of Bt eggplant, saying there was no peer-reviewed study conducted on its safety for human consumption and the environment.

Ruling on GMOs

In 2015, the Supreme Court permanently stopped the government from doing field trials propagation, commercialization and importing GMOs used on plants to prevent health risks to humans and damage to the environment.

But the high tribunal overturned its decision the following year, saying the writ of kalikasan was rendered moot by the expiration of the biosafety permits issued by the BPI and the termination of Bt eggplant field trials subject to the permits.

The present case before the CA stemmed from the dismissed petition for review filed before the DA after the petitioners learned in 2021 that the BPI still issued biosafety permits for the commercial propagation and direct use of the GMOs despite the high court’s writ of kalikasan.

In a resolution dated June 30, 2022, then Agriculture Secretary William Dar justified the issuance of the permits, saying they strictly complied with the procedural requirements of Joint Department Circular (JDC) No. 01-2016 governing the management of GMOs.

PhilRice argued that the DA resolution had already attained finality after the petitioners failed to file a motion for reconsideration and appeal.

However, according to the CA, it was “unreasonable” to expect the petitioner to exhaust all administrative remedies and defer judicial action as their concern involved strong public interest regarding the perceived threats and adverse effects of Golden Rice and Bt eggplant on the people’s constitutional right to health and to a balanced, healthful ecology.

The CA also noted that the respondent government regulators did not comply with the monitoring mechanism and risk assessment procedure under JDC No. 1-2016, which was signed by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), DA, DENR, DOH and the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

“Based on the foregoing, it is clear that no genuine, exhaustive, independent, and active monitoring activity is being conducted by the BPI or the other government agency regulators,” it said.

Flerida Carino of the DOST Biosafety Committee of the Philippines said the BPI’s receipt of new information on a GMO product from a consumer would trigger a review of the regulators’ decision.

The CA, however, said this government approach, rather than being “proactive” and initiating monitoring activities, was just “waiting to receive information from the proponents or the public.”

“It must be stressed that monitoring of GMO activities by the government cannot be taken lightly. It is not an empty formality that can be disregarded or passed on to others,” the court said. —WITH A REPORT FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH