The War of Attrition Filipinos Should Win

The Position of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization of the Philippines (CAMP), Inc. on a Court of Appealsโ€™ Decision Supporting the Appeal of Greenpeace and its Filipino Collaborators to effectively Deny Filipino Farmers and Philippine Society in general of the Benefits of Modern Plant Breeding

On April 17, 2024, the Court of Appeals decided to grant the petition of Greenpeace and its Filipino collaborators to effectively deny Filipinos of the benefits of the latest products of modern plant breeding. This decision directly concerns Bt Talong, a breed of eggplant that protects the plant and its fruits against a very destructive insect pest; and Golden Rice, a breed of rice that can help solve Vitamin A deficiency in humans. But it also covers all other GMOs. The direct losers are national government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Health, the Bureau of Plant Industry, the Philippine Rice Research Institute, and the University of the Philippines Los Banos. These agencies spent thousands of high-level man-hours and millions of taxpayer money over at least two decades developing these technologies and making sure they are properly regulated. ๐ˆ๐ง ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐ฆ๐š๐ญ๐œ๐ก ๐ข๐ง๐ฏ๐จ๐ฅ๐ฏ๐ข๐ง๐  ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐ฃ๐ฎ๐๐ข๐œ๐ข๐š๐ฅ ๐š๐ง๐ ๐ž๐ฑ๐ž๐œ๐ฎ๐ญ๐ข๐ฏ๐ž ๐›๐ซ๐š๐ง๐œ๐ก๐ž๐ฌ ๐จ๐Ÿ ๐ ๐จ๐ฏ๐ž๐ซ๐ง๐ฆ๐ž๐ง๐ญ, ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐ฎ๐ฅ๐ญ๐ข๐ฆ๐š๐ญ๐ž ๐ฅ๐จ๐ฌ๐ž๐ซ๐ฌ ๐š๐ซ๐ž ๐…๐ข๐ฅ๐ข๐ฉ๐ข๐ง๐จ ๐Ÿ๐š๐ซ๐ฆ๐ž๐ซ๐ฌ ๐š๐ง๐ ๐œ๐จ๐ง๐ฌ๐ฎ๐ฆ๐ž๐ซ๐ฌ. They may have to wait longer to enjoy the benefits of these technologies.

The court proceedings leading to this decision are part of a long-term pattern of obstruction led by Greenpeace and its local collaborators using legal and extra-legal means to stop modern plant breeding. Among the means used are repeated destruction of legally allowed experiments (obviously encouraged by the fact that no one was sent to jail for the criminal acts!). Judging by the length of time (at least 20 years) and the amount of material and manpower resources spent by both parties in this struggle, it is now becoming a battle of attrition. Whoever runs out of resources or will to fight first, loses.

๐“๐ก๐ข๐ฌ ๐ข๐ฌ ๐š ๐›๐š๐ญ๐ญ๐ฅ๐ž ๐ฐ๐ž ๐ฌ๐ก๐จ๐ฎ๐ฅ๐ ๐ง๐จ๐ญ ๐š๐ฅ๐ฅ๐จ๐ฐ ๐…๐ข๐ฅ๐ข๐ฉ๐ข๐ง๐จ๐ฌ ๐ญ๐จ ๐ฅ๐จ๐ฌ๐ž. ๐–๐ž ๐œ๐š๐ฅ๐ฅ ๐จ๐ง ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐ฉ๐š๐ญ๐ซ๐ข๐จ๐ญ๐ข๐œ ๐ฌ๐ž๐œ๐ญ๐จ๐ซ๐ฌ ๐จ๐Ÿ ๐ฌ๐จ๐œ๐ข๐ž๐ญ๐ฒ ๐ญ๐จ ๐ฃ๐จ๐ข๐ง ๐ฎ๐ฌ ๐ข๐ง ๐ฌ๐ฎ๐ฉ๐ฉ๐จ๐ซ๐ญ๐ข๐ง๐  ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐š๐ฉ๐ฉ๐ž๐š๐ฅ๐ฌ ๐จ๐Ÿ ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐ซ๐ž๐ฅ๐ž๐ฏ๐š๐ง๐ญ ๐ ๐จ๐ฏ๐ž๐ซ๐ง๐ฆ๐ž๐ง๐ญ ๐š๐ ๐ž๐ง๐œ๐ข๐ž๐ฌ ๐ญ๐จ ๐ซ๐ž๐ฏ๐ž๐ซ๐ฌ๐ž ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐œ๐จ๐ฎ๐ซ๐ญ ๐๐ž๐œ๐ข๐ฌ๐ข๐จ๐ง.

What technology was involved in developing Bt Talong and Golden Rice? Simply stated the technology is about controlling a natural process of DNA exchange among unrelated organisms called horizontal gene transfer. Controlling refers to ensuring that only the relevant DNA fragments are transferred across organisms, which differs from the natural process that is purely random. For this reason, there is a scientific consensus that modern technology is more precise and safer than traditional plant breeding methods based on natural DNA transfer that simply rely on observing the traits transferred, without knowing exactly what DNA fragment is involved. Using this technology, the DNA responsible for making beta carotene (yellow color) was transferred from corn to rice; the DNA responsible for killing insect pests was transferred from a bacterium used safely by organic farmers to kill insect pests for more than 50 years to eggplant.

Here is what scientific evidence tells us about Bt Talong:

  • A. The Philippines is the second country to approve Bt Talong. The first one is Bangladesh, which approved it in 2013. By 2020, it was reported that as many as 66,000 Bangladeshi farmers benefited from this technology. Positive effects on farm profits and reduction of synthetic pesticide use were consistently reported experimentally by both countries and also by farmers in the case of Bangladesh, and to a limited extent, the Philippines, too.
  • B. Bt Talong can substantially improve farmer income by reducing losses due to insect damage. According to UP Los Banos, Bt Talong gave as much as a five-fold yield advantage over conventional farming methods.
  • C. It can substantially promote farmer health by reducing his reliance on harmful chemical pesticides. An average 61% reduction in the use of synthetic insecticides was reported in Bangladesh and 48% in the Philippines.
  • D. The benefits cited were achieved without harming the consumer or the environment. In the Philippines, risks were reduced by 28%, 25%, and 26% for humans, birds and beneficial insects, respectively. In the case of Bangladesh, the observation period for risk reduction at the level of farms spanned 10 years.

On the other hand, Golden Rice can effectively reduce human suffering due to Vitamin A deficiency, without any negative impact on the farmer and the environment. According to PhilRice, Golden Rice can provide at least 30% of the estimated average requirement for Vitamin A if regularly consumed. It can help reduce the prevalence of Vitamin A deficiency, which remains to be 20% among low-income children under five and remains in the upper limit of moderate public health concern. Since rice is the main staple in our diet, and to many of our poor consumers it is the only food they regularly eat, Golden Rice provides a practical and immediate solution to Vitamin A deficiency.

The efficacy and safety of Bt Talong and Golden Rice are assured by an elaborate regulatory system that has been developed specifically for the modern technology that was used to produce them; even as traditional plant breeding (the ones proposed as an alternative by opponents) is theoretically, and demonstrably, more prone to errors that can impact on safety. This new regulatory regime was installed for the main purpose of addressing fears of the unknown that have been stoked by the ideology-based opposition. The regulatory system is not free; it can cost more than developing the technology itself. We have not counted the cost of litigation in the courts.

The Philippine regulatory system used for Bt Talong and Golden Rice is compliant with international standards and has proven to be robust through more than 20 years of use in 29 countries, benefiting at least 15 million farmers. The regulatory system has been developed over more than 30 years in the Philippines with the active participation of relevant sectors of our society, including opponents themselves. The system has undergone many revisions, all of them meant to give assurances to the opposition, even if such revisions are superfluous and add expense to, and delay the process.

We believe that the existing regulation is science-based and sufficient. If there are defects in their implementation, we believe that these are not enough to justify further delays on the release of GMOs that have been proven to be beneficial to farmers, the environment and human health. The scientific method embedded in current regulations has established that they do not pose more risk than similar products that are not GMOs.

CAMP is concerned that our justice system is misused to favor a few organic farmers and an ideology that has been repudiated repeatedly by scientific evidence and human experience. Organic and other farmers can and must co-exist as they serve different sectors of Philippine society. There is no need for the justice system to favor one over the other. The ideology that nature is best supports no farmer; farming, by definition, is altering nature to serve human needs.

In the Court decision, the vague constitutional provision on โ€œthe right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of natureโ€ is indiscriminately and irresponsibly invoked. Interpreting the provision without regard for nuances condemns not only Bt Talong, Golden Rice, and all GMOs but farming itself, organic or not. If a deluded individual with a lot of money brings the automobile industry to our courts invoking this constitutional provision, we may end up walking all the way to Timbuktu or using horses.

Pray, should we go back to the hunting and gathering stage to live โ€œin accord with the rhythm and harmony of natureโ€? It is too late in the game to be asking this question. The agricultural revolution is on its irreversible path; we need farming to survive as a species. Let us continue to improve farming with modern technology.

The court decision seems to put weight on the argument that there are conflicting scientific views on the safety of GMOs, suggesting the need for scientific consensus. In fact, there is a scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, just like there is a scientific consensus that the Earth is roughly a sphere rather than flat. But it is true that there are still a few who believe that the Earth is flat. Should we now require DepEd to teach our children that there is no scientific consensus on the shape of the Earth? The court decision further criticized the government regulation for insufficient monitoring after releasing GMOs to the market, focusing on food safety. Again, this requirement is unscientific as it does not specify what to monitor or what is meant by sufficient. Any answer can be criticized for being insufficient.

The court did not put weight on the argument that exhaustive studies for food safety meeting scientific standards have been completed on the basis of ๐ค๐ง๐จ๐ฐ๐ง food safety risks such as toxicity, allergenicity, and carcinogenicity, ๐›๐ž๐Ÿ๐จ๐ซ๐ž GMOs were allowed into the market. The existing regulation is based on the capabilities and limitations of science.

We support the rights of people who do not want to eat GMOs. But they should respect the rights of the majority who want to have a free choice.

We are confident that eventually reason and justice will prevail and Bt Talong and Golden Rice will make their way to the farms and consumer tables. But we need to understand that while we are dilly-dallying on this decision, millions of Filipinos are suffering, not a few of them dying because of malnutrition, poverty, and exposure to harmful pesticides that farmers had to use for lack of a viable alternative. In contrast to the unjustified fears of those who oppose GMOs, human suffering attributed to not using GMOs is supported by scientific evidence. How many more lives are we willing to bet to satisfy the whims of a bankrupt ideology?

Coalition for Agriculture Modernization of the Philippines (CAMP)
May 4, 2024

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