CA stops 'super talong' field tests

by Ina Reformina, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 24 2013 08:56 PM | Updated as of May 25 2013 04:56 AM

MANILA - In a landmark decision upholding the "precautionary principle," the Court of Appeals has granted a petition filed by environmentalists to permanently put to a stop nationwide field trials of genetically modified eggplants -- popularly known as Bacillus thuringiensis (bt) talong.

The tests were being conducted by the University of the Philippines in Los Baños and various government and private agencies.

"It is clear that there is no full scientific certainty yet as to the effects of the bt talong field trials to the environment and the health of the people," said the appellate court's Special 13th Division, speaking through Associate Justice Isaias Dicdican.

"Consequently, the field trials of bt talong could not be declared by this Court as safe to human health and to our ecology, with full scientific certainty, being an alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology."

Appellate Associate Justices Myra V. Garcia-Fernandez and Nina G. Antonio-Valenzuela concurred in the decision.

The court said even local and foreign experts presented by proponents of the purportedly pest-resistant eggplants all agreed that aside from the fact that there are no laws regulating the field testing of genetically-modified plants, their safety cannot fully be guaranteed.

For this reason, the court said "This is where the precautionary principle sets in which states that, when human activities may led to threats of serious and irreversible damage to the environment that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish the threat."

The petitioners, led by environmental organization Greenpeace and farmers and scientists group Masipag, filed the suit in April 26 last year before the Supreme Court under the High Court's new environmental protection procedures. The petitioners were represented in the suit by lawyers from the Roque and Butuyan Law Offices, led by Prof. Harry L. Roque Jr. and Roger R. Rayel.

Named as respondents were the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños Foundation Inc., UP Mindanao Foundation Inc. and International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

Greenpeace and Masipag were joined in the petition by activists and key figures in the academe and politics, among them Rep. Teddy Casiño, Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn, folk singer Noel Cabangon and scientist Dr. Ben Malayang III.

The Supreme Court issued a Writ of Kalikasan on May 2, 2012, directing the respondents to answer the petition. It subsequently remanded the petition to the Court of Appeals for hearings on the scientific and factual questions involved.

At the time of the filing of the suit, field testing of genetically modified eggplant had already been done in Pangasinan, Laguna and Camarines Sur while others were still being conducted in Kabacan, North Cotabato.

The petition argued that the field trials violated the constitutional right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology because of the danger of contamination the technology posed to indigenous genetic resources of the country.

But experts presented by the respondents, including some of the country's top scientists at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, claimed the bt talong technology is safe and does not cause harm to the environment.

However, on questioning by the court, they admitted that the over-all safety of the bt talong remains to be unknown. The court also found that other than administrative issuances, there is no law that regulates field testing of GMOs in the country.

Because of this, the court ruled to permanently stop all field testing of bt talong in the country and directed the respondents to rehabilitate the areas where the testing had already been completed.

"The bt talong involve the willful and deliberate alternation of the genetic traits of a living element of the ecosystem and the relationship of living organisms that depend on each other for survival," said the appellate court in its 24-page judgment. "Consequently, the field trials of bt talong could not be declared by this court as safe to human health and to our ecology, with full scientific certainty, it being an alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology."