“Biosafety is not the intent of this new government policy. It will only facilitate the entry of more genetically-modified organisms (GMOS) into the country. This is bio-entry, not biosafety.” – RESIST! Agrochemical TNCs Network
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
Scientists and agrarian reform advocates held a picket in front of the Department of Agriculture (DA) recently to underscore their opposition to the Aquino administration’s commitment to the entry of genetically-modified organisms (GMOS) into the country.
The picket was specifically directed against the on-going consultation being held by the National Commission on Biosafety in the Philippines (NCBP) for the Manual on Biosafety Decision Making Process, which details the processes and forms for a proposed GMO to be studied, tested and eventually commercialized in the country.
“Biosafety is not the intent of this new government policy. It will only facilitate the entry of more genetically-modified organisms (GMOS) into the country. This is bio-entry, not biosafety,” said RESIST! Agrochemical TNCs Network, which led the action.
Biosafety, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, is “the prevention of large-scale loss of biological integrity, focusing both on ecology and human health.”
The group, composed of farmers, scientists, environmental activists, health professionals and development workers asserted that the consultation was a way to hasten the institutionalization of a policy that would make it easier for GMOs to enter the country, without a comprehensive safety, environmental impact and socio-economic impact study.
“The health of the people and the environment is at stake in this issue. As long as proponents have not answered safety and environmental issues raised against GMOs, these should not be allowed in the Philippines,” said Dr. Chito Medina, RESIST Co-convenor and National Coordinator of Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG).
“Also, without socio-economic studies that support the feasibility of these GMOs to help uplift the conditions of farmers, the need for these GM crops should be questioned. MASIPAG farmers maintain that traditional varieties of crops can sustain the livelihood of small farmers. There is no need for these GMOs,” he said.
Wilfredo Marbella, deputy secretary general of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and also a Convener of RESIST, said the proposed policy which allows for GMO proponents to withhold significant information relevant to the proposed project in the guise of confidential business information, creates favorable conditions for the massive entry of GMO and GM products in the country.
“Ultimately, farmers will suffer from the negative effects of this policy, and these are myriad. While the government allows for the smooth entry of these GMOs, farmers will continue to suffer from higher cost of farm inputs, displacement due to land and crop conversions, and food insecurity”, he stressed. “Government policies that directly affect farmers should foremost consider farmers’ rights to land and agricultural resources. Opening the country to GMOs undermines these rights.”
The group also said indigenous peoples will also be affected by the policy allowing the full-scale entry of GMOs and GMO-products.
It pointed out that even as the NCBP Manual recognizes the need to consult indigenous communities should their ancestral domains be used for testing of GMOs, this does not guarantee that indigenous peoples’ rights will be upheld in the process.
According to Tyrone Beyer, Policy Advocacy Officer of the Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights (TFIP), the incumbent guidelines on the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in relation to activities done on ancestral domains do not ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples are respected.
“We cannot expect that this new policy will be any different. As long as dysfunctional government agencies are mandated to implement these policies and procedures, farmers and indigenous peoples are in a precarious situation. Traditional crop varieties in ancestral domains are also in danger of being wiped out, which results to further food insecurity,” he said.
Hurried, inscrutable, improper consultations
RESIST also examined the technical aspects of the manual. One of its allied organizations the Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (AGHAM), criticized the policy’s lack of mandate to the NCBP to conduct independent technical and risk assessment studies of the proposed GMO study.
According to a paper by Jose Yorobe Jr, the concern to provide the level of biosafety for biotechnology development in the Philippines was recognized as early as 1990 when Executive Order (EO) 430 created the NCBP and put in force a national biosafety policy through the Philippine Biosafety Guidelines-Series 1.
The government started to institutionalize the promotion of safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology and its products when it also signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000 and became a member of the Convention of Biological Diversity . In 2002, the Department of Agriculture (DA) issued Administrative Order No. 8 providing rules and regulations for the importation and release into the environment of plants and plant products derived from the use of modern biotechnology. In 2006, the National Biosafety Framework of the Philippines was released through EO 514 dated March 17, 2006. The implementation of the biosafety policies is the responsibility of the NCBP and the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).
“The NCBP is proud to say that biosafety policies in the Philippines are more stringent than in other countries, but this Manual on Biosafety Decision Making Process proves otherwise. The reports they require of GMO proponents are plenty but insubstantial. They are just descriptive data of the project; there are no significant technical studies to speak of”, said one of Agham’s officers Finesa Cosico.
The activists also criticized the consultation process on the manual, calling it “bungled at best.”
They said the NCBP invited different stakeholders to an “on-line consultation,” wherein the stakeholders were asked to send their comments on the manual through e-mail. Resist pointed out however that the notice given was too short for the stakeholders to at least read the contents of the 392-page draft manual.
“To make it worse, failure to send in the comments on the specified deadline will be construed as a concurrence to the contents of the manual. When Resist members formally registered their complaints on such an improper, inscrutable, and seemingly anomalous procedure, the NCBP to save face, called for a head on consultation. Still, the hurried process of consultation does not ensure that farmers and other stakeholders heavily affected by the policy are consulted,” the group said.
The group declared that it does not want to be part of this bogus consultation to give legitimacy to a policy that would further jeopardize the Filipino people.
“We believe that consultation processes, especially those intended to formulate policies that affect people’s lives and the environment, should be guided by the principle of public transparency which is essential to good governance”, stressed Jean Yasol, Policy officer of Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), also a member of the Resist Network.
Philippines to mass market Golden Rice in 2013
In a related development, the Resist Network also declared its opposition against reported plans for making the Philippines a “launch pad” for the marketing of the GMO rice variety Golden Rice in the year 2013.The launch of the GMO rice variety as reported in the media is being projected as a way to boost global food security and reduce malnutrition. According to reports, the Philippines was the first to commercialize the genetically modified Bacillus thuringiensis corn in Asia in 2002. The commercialization of Golden Rice is, proponents say, a move to reduce mortality due to Vitamin A deficiency that afflicts children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers nationwide.
The group of scientists said those seeking to mass-market the rice variety were risking harming the public, and even if biotechnology experts establish the safety of golden rice, there are still questions regarding the availability of beta-carotene in golden rice.
“There is no scientific evidence that golden rice can answer the problem of malnutrition and blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). It is merely a public promotion of scientists and agrochemical corporations to easily accept genetic engineering. The development and promotion of Golden Rice illustrate an industrial model of agriculture that limits bio-diversity and lessens dietary diversification, which primarily causes malnutrition,” said Resist’s Medina.
The body needs fats or oils and other nutrients for Vitamin A to be absorbed by the body, but for poor families they don’t have access to this type of diversified diet. How much beta-carotene degrades during storage? How much beta-carotene remains after cooking? There is no systematic data available,” he said.
Medina said that since golden rice appears to be an expensive and dangerous experiment, the country’s agriculture authorities should promote the consumption of natural sources of beta-carotene to reduce VAD.
“Organic fertilizers from plants, and livestock are a safer means to enrich the soil and rice crop. Also, we can get beta-carotene from red rice, mangoes, yellow corn, papaya, carrots, red curry peppers, cabbage, spinach, leafy vegetables, sweet potato, and the like,” he said.
The group also expressed fears that the field tests of Golden Rice might pose environmental risks such as the possibility that golden rice might cross-pollinate with the rice varieties already approved for consumption. It also said that after the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) conducted field trials and other evaluations, regulatory agencies may quickly approve golden rice as early as 2013 and ignore studies raising safety issues.
Medina said local seed varieties are more suitable and adapted to the environment and climate, which assures the farmers of better yields. H said the only thing that will result from the development of Golden Rice is the “legitimization and widespread control of transnational corporations in agriculture and food by patenting seeds and varieties.”
“The problem of malnutrition and hunger is caused primarily by the lack of access to land and food resulting to terrible poverty. Farmers’ rights should be safeguarded against the negative effects of globalization including the excessive power and influence of TNCs. Intellectual property rights and genetic engineering may compromise farmers’ ability to produce food. We need genuine land reform to address hunger and poverty,” he said.