Supreme Court opens door for GMO research

THE SUPREME COURT on Tuesday set aside its December ruling that stopped the field trials of genetically modified eggplants and halted the issuance of new permits on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Dec. 8, 2015 decision had demanded an overhaul of previous rules on GMOs, forcing the government to draw up new regulations earlier this year and triggering criticism from the scientific community.

But, in a rare complete reversal, the high court unanimously granted the nine motions for reconsideration appealing the said decision.

It issued a new ruling dismissing "on the ground of mootness" the petition for writ of continuing mandamus and writ of kalikasan filed by Greenpeace Southeast Asia (Philippines) and Magsasaka at Siyentipiko sa Pagpapaunlad ng Agrikultura, among others.

Associate Justice Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe penned the new decision, which replaced the one written by now-retired Associate Justice Martin S. Villarama, Jr.

Agreeing with the appeals, the high court now said that it should have junked Greenpeace's case to stop the field trials of Bt eggplant, because the tests have been completed and terminated and the biosafety permits expired in 2012. "These effectively negated the need for the reliefs sought by [Greenpeace and other environmentalist groups] as there was no longer any field test to stop," SC Public Information Chief Theodore O. Te explained in a briefing.

The high court's new decision pointed out that Bt eggplant proponents did not go past field testing stage to commercial distribution. The lack of commercial propagation meant there was no after-effect that needed to be addressed.

"Any future threat to the right of herein respondents or the public in general to a healthful and balanced ecology is therefore more imagined than real," read an excerpt of the new decision, a full copy of which is yet to be released.

The high court added that it should not have ruled the Department of Agriculture's Administrative Order (DAO) No. 08-2002 as invalid. The question of the order's constitutionality should not have been acted upon because "this matter was only collaterally raised" by Greenpeace in its bid to halt the Bt eggplant trials, Mr. Te said.

The court said further that "public interest" could not be invoked in order to except the case from mootness, because the regulations that governed the tests have been rendered obsolete. A ruling on the alleged hazards of Bt eggplant trials would thus be irrelevant to the new GMO rules.

To recall, the December decision led the government to issue Joint Department Circular 01-2016 in early March, which the high court acknowledged "provides a substantially different regulatory framework from that under DAO 08-2002."

Deciding on the case would have meant assessing alleged health and environmental rights violations that arise from "a past test case whose bearings do not find any -- if not minimal -- relevance to cases operating under today's regulatory framework."

The Greenpeace case was specifically limited to violations of DAO 08-2002, regarding the proponents' failure to conduct a valid risk assessment and inform the public of the field trials' hazards.

"The specificity of the Petition, which did not extend far enough as to enjoin the use of the results of the field trials that have been completed, prevented it from falling under [the public interest exception] to mootness," Mr. Te said.

Because of the mootness of the case, the high court said it would not discuss the substantive merits of Greenpeace's case against the trials and the GMO rules.

Bt eggplant is engineered with genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that acts as a biological pesticide, to make the crop resistant against pests like fruit and shoot borers.

Field tests of Bt eggplant were conducted in Laguna, Pangasinan, Camarines Sur and Cotabato.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, Inc. (ISAAA) said in a 2013 brief that the genetically modified eggplant will "minimize, if not totally eliminate, insecticide applications," reducing the risks of water pollution and harm to organisms beneficial to plants.

The case was elevated to the Supreme Court by the Environmental Management Bureau, as well as the ISAAA, the University of the Philippines (UP) and the UP Los BaAos Foundation, Inc. (UPLBFI). This was after the Court of Appeals granted Greenpeace's petition to stop the Bt talong trials in 2013.

When the high court originally affirmed the CA decision in Greenpeace's favor, it applied the "precautionary principle" and cited the "lack of scientific certainty" on GMO safety. Hence, it ruled to protect the environment against the "possibility of irreversible serious harm."

Sought for comment, UPLBFI counsel Filemon D. Nolasco said by phone: "It's a good thing they saw the wisdom of the argument."

"At least, the obstacles to research have been removed. There is now the possibility to commercially propagate," he said.

Source: Business World Online