The SC’s Bt talong decision: Error in precaution?

The SC’s Bt talong decision: Error in precaution?


The Supreme Court's judgment of the relative safety of Bt talong 'can be challenged for lack of rigor, leading to injustice, or worse willfully exposing farmers and consumers to greater risks'

The Supreme Court (SC) decision declaring field experiments on Bt talong permanently enjoined was justified on the basis of the “precautionary principle.”

The precautionary principle says that “where there are potential adverse effects (of a technology), lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing appropriate measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

This principle is recognized both by international conventions, where the Philippines is a signatory; and by EO 514, an Executive Order issued by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Thus, the use of the precautionary principle is deemed a legal matter, and well within the scope of work of the judiciary.

Bt talong refers to eggplant that has been genetically modified to control the fruit and shoot borer, an insect pest that can cause more than 80% economic loss to farmers.

Researchers on Bt talong from the University of the Philippines Los Baños have experimentally demonstrated that it is effective, and the use of this technology can dramatically reduce the current use of toxic chemical insecticides. The safety of Bt talong is strongly supported by experimental and other evidences.

However, critics led by Greenpeace argued that Bt talong can cause adverse effects to the environment, also citing evidence from various sources. This conflict of opinion created a scenario of uncertainty, that, along with the claim of “potential adverse effects,” constitute the conditions for application of the precautionary principle.

The SC necessarily had to accept, too, that Bt talong can cause potential adverse effects before it could decide to apply the precautionary principle on the case of Bt talong. However, potential adverse effect is a judgment that is not a matter of interpreting law but a matter of evaluating scientific evidence. While it may be correct to use the precautionary principle, because it is what the law says, deciding whether a technology should be covered by the precautionary principle is another matter. While all technologies have elements of risk, not all of them can be banned on the basis of the precautionary principle.

Did the SC err in judging Bt talong to have potential for adverse effects and therefore, should be covered by the precautionary principle? To answer this question, one must apply standards.

There are two standards to choose from: absolute safety and relative safety. The standard accepted by all regulations on plant genetic engineering, including the Philippines’, is relative safety, because absolute safety is impossible to achieve for Bt talong or any technology for that matter. Establishing absolutely safety means proving that harm does not exist, and the scientific method is not adequate for this task. If absolute safety will be used as the standard by the courts, no technology will pass judicial challenge.

Simply stated, the concept of relative safety means that a new technology must not be more harmful than the old technology it is trying to replace. Since the decision of the SC did not show any evaluation of the “old technology” being replaced by Bt talong, its judgment of the relative safety of Bt talong can be challenged for lack of rigor, leading to injustice, or worse willfully exposing farmers and consumers to greater risks. (Is the latter a criminal offense? Let the courts decide!)

What are the “old technologies” in question? One is the natural defense mechanism of the eggplant. The SC should have evaluated these. Like all plants, eggplant cannot run away from its enemies, so it resorts to intimidation and chemical warfare. The “natural” eggplant intimidates it enemies with its thorns, and kills those who cannot be intimidated by poisoning. Thorns and glycoalkaloids, the weapons in question, are not known to be very selective. For the natural eggplant, humans are enemies because they eat their babies (the seeds of eggplant).

Fortunately, most varieties of cultivated eggplant do not have these weapons anymore. Farmers and plant breeders eliminated these weapons by breeding and selection because they cause hazards to farmers and consumers alike. This is the reason why farmers now have to use synthetic chemical pesticides to protect the eggplant from insect pests.

The SC also failed to evaluate the safety of synthetic chemical pesticides. What do synthetic chemicals do to other forms of life in the farm? How toxic are they to humans? Have they been subjected to long term feeding trials? How do they compare in safety to Bt talong?

The Bt talong is an attempt to use a natural defense mechanism, but selectively. The idea is to prevent collateral damage by targeting only the pest; not humans or other forms of life. However, like other “natural” defense mechanisms, the Bt eggplant is not perfect. If one is really determined to show it can do harm, there is likely to be something that it can harm, in addition to the pest itself. One can easily demonstrate harm in the lab, even with perfectly harmless stuff, simply by giving high doses or longer exposures. Think of table salt, which can kill at high dosage, or ice, which can kill with prolonged exposure.

The safety of Bt eggplant should have been evaluated in comparison with alternatives, which are also imperfect. The fact that the SC did not perform this evaluation before judging that Bt eggplant should be covered by the precautionary principle, is a good reason why it should reconsider its decision.

There is no doubt, considering the wisdom of the SC, that if it attempted to do the relative safety evaluation and found that information is insufficient, it would have ordered additional field trials instead of “permanently enjoining” these. –

Eufemio Rasco Jr, PhD., is an academician at the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the country’s highest scientific recognition and advisory body. Dr. Rasco is also a former director of Institute of Plant Breeding – University of the Philippines Los Baños; former director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice); and the author of the book “The Unfolding Gene Revolution: The Ideology, Science, and Regulation of Plant Biotechnology.”

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