In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court (SC) on December 8, 2015 upheld the 2013 decision of the Court of Appeals banning field trials of Bt Talong in the country and declared the Department of Agriculture Administrative Order of 2002 (DAO 8) as invalid.
The SC cited the precautionary principle as the basis for its decision to permanently ban field trials of Bt Talong, noting that the biotech industry has failed to sufficiently ascertain the safety of GM foods and crops. The precautionary principle provides that concerned government departments and agencies shall take the necessary action to protect public interest and welfare when there is lack of scientific certainty or consensus on safety due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects on the environment. The precautionary principle may be applied if the elements of uncertainty, possibility of irreversible harm, and possibility of serious harm are present, which was the case with Bt Talong.
The voidance of the DAO 8, on the other hand, was on the basis that it violates the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biodiversity (or simply Cartagena Protocol, a binding international agreement to which the Philippines is a signatory) and disregards the executive orders issued by the President in the fields of biodiversity and biosafety (e.g., Executive 514, or the National Biosafety Framework).
Following the voidance of the DAO 8, a technical working group composed of representatives from the DOST, DA, DENR, DOH, and DILG was formed to draft a joint department circular on GMO titled, “Rules and Regulations for the Research and Development, Handling and Use, Transboundary Movement, Release into Environment and Management of Plant and Plant Products Derived from the Use of Modern Technology,” referred to as simply Joint Department Circular (JDC) on GMO.
We at SEARICE object to the current content, and the process of drafting, of the Joint Department Circular on GMO.
First, the draft JDC is a mere rehash of DAO 8 which the SC has already declared ‘NULL AND VOID” in its December 2015 decision. It does not reflect a sincere and meaningful attempt to protect the constitutionally enshrined right of the people to health, and to a balanced and healthful ecology. It remains favorable to the commercialization of GMOs, and lacks standard processes to 1) protect the constitutional rights to life, health, and healthful and balanced ecology; 2) ensure public participation, transparency, and consensus building; and 4) safeguard socio-economic, ethical and cultural considerations and the rights of indigenous peoples.
For example, the principle of substantial equivalence, the approach adopted in the draft JDC, is contradictory to the precautionary principle. “Substantial equivalence” basically emphasizes the equivalence or non-difference of GMOs and non-GMO crops based on chosen characteristics, and therefore safety is largely presumed. By this standard, practically all of GM crops are considered to be substantially equivalent to its conventional counterpart. This standard is useless in assessing risks that come from the genetic modification. The burden of proving the safety of GMOs for human consumption should rest on those promoting and marketing GMOs and GM food products. The burden should not be placed on those who insist on moving with extreme caution with regard to GMOs.
Moreover, the JDC does not provide a mechanism for liability and redress available to injured third parties, such as when farmers’ crops are contaminated, or when the GMOs inflict actual damage to biodiversity and human health.
Second, the consultation process is being railroaded. There is no serious attempt to make the consultation meaningful, as indicated by the unnecessary and unreasonable haste with which the concerned agencies wish to have the draft JDC signed. To cite concrete examples:
The draft JDC, made available only on February 4, was initially set to be signed on February 23. However, the TWG now refuses to confirm the expected date of signing.
On the first consultation held on January 22, 2016: Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), including SEARICE, received the reference materials only the night before the consultation, making it impossible for the CSOs to study the documents, and thus, prompting them to boycott the consultation.
On the second and third consultations, held on January 25 and 27, 2016 in Visayas and Mindanao, respectively: CSOs, including SEARICE, received notice on January 23, a Saturday, and merely two days before the schedule.
On the fourth consultation held on February 9, 2016, SEARICE and other CSOs received notice on February 4 (Thursday), and was given only until February 8, a holiday, to send in their comments.
The fifth consultation was held on February 17, 2016. The next day was set as the deadline for written comments.
Moreover, the invitees to the consultations composed mostly of pro-GMO scientists and industry representatives. Hence, the voices of other stakeholders especially those on the other side of the fence, are being left out.
We can only surmise that the unreasonable fast-tracking of the process may have something to do with the imminent expiration of some company’s permit to import GM corn in March—an indication that indeed, the JDC is inclined to favor GMO.
We condemn the lack of meaningful public consultation on the draft JDC and the failure of the concerned agencies to protect the interests of the general public.
We call for the drafting of a truly meaningful administrative order—one that upholds the right of the people to health and to a safe environment and safeguards agricultural biodiversity and farmers’ rights, and not the interests of GMO players and the seed business.
Going beyond the drafting of new regulations to replace DAO 8, we should take the Supreme Court decision as an opportunity to open up wider public discourse on broader goals of sustainable agriculture and food security. It should lead to public discourse on whether the current loose policy on GM crops will help or hinder the attainment of sustainable agriculture and food security.