Farmer-scientist group distrustful of new GMO policy

Quezon City – Farmer-scientist group MASIPAG believes that the new policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a product of a railroaded process that sidelined the participation and position of resource-poor farmers in the country and still indicates a strong GMO bias.

Merely two months after the Supreme Court has ruled against Bt-talong and temporarily banned new applications for genetically modified organisms, the Department of Agriculture (DA), along with the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR); Health (DOH); Science and Technology (DOST); and Interior and Local Government (DILG) has come up with a joint department circular that is essentially the same with its predecessor, the voided DA Administrative Order No.8.

“The draft as of February 21 still fails to address substantial issues such as instituting clear standards for determining health and environment safety,” said Dr. Chito Medina, National Coordinator of MASIPAG. “Another contentious issue is the independence and capacity of the risk assessors. For instance, the members of the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), which is tasked to conduct risk assessment and come up with risk management strategies, are selected by the applicants, with the two community representatives outnumbered by the scientists.”

Also noticeable was the absence of community representatives at the Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP) which evaluates the risk assessments conducted by the IBC.

The Joint Department Circular (JDC) has been drafted by a technical working group and is posed to be signed for approval on February 23. The National Committee on Biosafety in the Philippines which acts as the secretariat has called for consultations to supposedly solicit comments from various stakeholders.

Token Public Participation

MASIPAG, along with other civil society and peoples’ organizations slammed the apparent railroading of the consultation process which only started last January 25, with the secretariat failing to provide the draft of the JDC prior to the consultations.

“We feel that the JDC failed to uphold the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling, which is to broaden the discussion and meaningfully engage the wider general public on issues that affect our health and safety,” said Darius Gurango, a farmer from Real, Quezon. “During the so-called consultation, they fail to address our pressing concerns and instead insist on fast-tracking the GMO regulations which still appear suspiciously pro-GMOs.”

“The JDC still applies the substantial equivalence and provides for deregulation which could potentially be abused by agrochemical companies hoping to remove their GMOs from the governance of the JDC,” said Dr. Medina. “Meanwhile, presuming that GMOs are the same as their conventional counterparts (substantial equivalence) is a cause for alarm since the regulators deem that no actual tests on their safety as food or feed are required.”

“But as the Supreme Court has ruled, the safety of the people and the environment should be given paramount importance, and that is what the JDC should espouse,” he added.

Imperative for Alternatives

Research institutions, as well as livestock and feed mill businessmen lament the Supreme Court decision because of its supposed impact on research, and availability of livestock feeds and has been putting much pressure on DA and the other departments to hasten the crafting of the new JDC.

“However, while they are lobbying for the new regulations, they should also focus on looking for alternatives, that we may not be reliant on GMO imports,” said Gurango. “There are a number of farmers and communities who are able to raise livestock using more sustainable feeds that are safe and inexpensive.”

“Researchers and students should be appreciative that the Supreme Court decision actually calls for more scientific studies to determine health and safety of GMOs,” said Dr. Medina. “For instance, environmental impact assessments call for independent and open-minded scientists who will better serve the people this way, rather than merely relying on research funded by agrochemical corporations.”

“If the JDC is passed in its current form, it will be business-as-usual again for modern biotech companies, importers and traders in which GM products will saturate our food systems,” said Dr. Medina. “Thus, we are calling on the government to protect our fragile agrobiodiversity and the farmers’ rights to seed, land and technology. We are calling for more public consultations, as it is the people who will bear the brunt of these unwanted and untested technologies. We are calling for sustainable, environment friendly and a farmer-led agriculture to achieve safe and sufficient food for all.”#