Philippines Court Decision Gives Great Hope to Efforts to Save Farmers and Consumers from GM Crops and Food

GM Rice Golden Rice

At a time when there is increasing concern that powerful GM crop lobbyists backed by enormous resources of giant multinational companies may be able to bulldoze food safety and environmental concerns while pushing GM crops, a new hope has appeared in the form of a court decision from the Philippines. Many thanks to these judges and to those activists and farmers of the Philippines who took this case to the court and kept the issue alive at the grassroots too. Their contribution is all the greater because big agri-business interests had tried to turn their country into a big centre of that highly distorted kind of research which promotes big agribusiness interests but still farmers, people-oriented scientists and activists kept their struggle alive and fought on to ultimately achieve this victory. This is a big inspiration for people in India as well as other countries where such struggles are going on. What makes people in India happier still is that the work a scientist from India Debal Deb, who has been in the forefront of the efforts for eco-friendly farming, also contributed to the favourable outcome of this case.

Now let us look at this verdict in some more detail. In a recently released summary GM Watch tells us–

“There’s welcome news from the Philippines relating to the court case on GM golden rice and Bt brinjal (eggplant). The Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the applicants – farmer/scientist group MASIPAG and others – and against the Philippine Government’s actions that granted permits for the commercial propagation of Bt brinjal and golden rice.

“The respondents (the Philippines Government) can appeal against this decision, but it is a significant victory for farmers, the environment, and people’s health. The judges’ decision to uphold the precautionary principle and to insist on proper risk assessment procedures to be in place and to be carried out gives a clear signal against any deregulation measures.

A press release from MASIPAG says:

“This decision underscores the triumph of farmers and the people in asserting their constitutional right to health and a healthy and balanced ecology against the introduction of unwanted, unnecessary genetically modified crops.

“Golden rice and Bt eggplant, touted as a solutions to vitamin A deficiency and pest infestation, faced staunch opposition from small farmers, consumers, children’s rights, scientists, and groups from various sectors who have long advocated for healthy, sustainable, community-driven farming methods through farmer-led agro-ecology. The Court of Appeals ruling acknowledges the inherent risks associated with genetically modified crops and reaffirms the importance of conserving and protecting biodiversity and the health of the people.”

The court ruled that all commercial propagation of golden rice and Bt eggplant must be stopped until “the concerned respondent government agencies submit proof of safety and compliance with all legal requirements”.

Speaking of its own work GM Watch has asserted that it has repeatedly drawn attention to the lack of proper tests showing that GM golden rice and Bt eggplants are safe to eat. Further it has clarified that under the ruling, government agencies will not be able to approve any application for contained use, field testing, direct use as food or feed or processing, commercial propagation, and importation of GMOs until they have strengthened their risk assessment procedures – and submitted the concrete mechanisms for achieving this to the Court of Appeal.

MASIPAG says, “This victory in the Philippine Court of Appeals is a testament to correctness of forwarding farmer-led agro-ecology and food sovereignty and to the resilience and determination of farmers who have tirelessly defended their rights to control their seeds, food systems, biodiversity and health of the people. It sends a powerful message to corporations and policymakers that the future of agriculture lies in empowering farmers and embracing agro-ecological principles that prioritise environmental sustainability, biodiversity, and the well-being of farming communities.

“As we celebrate this momentous and historic win, the call to meaningfully support and enable our farmers in their transition towards agro-ecological farming practices becomes more urgent than ever. However, the need to sustain our efforts and ready ourselves [for] a possible hearing in the Philippine Supreme Court is imperative.

“By investing in farmer-led initiatives and promoting policies that prioritise food sovereignty, we can build a more resilient and equitable food system that nourishes both people and the planet.”

These words are very inspiring for all those activists in India who are going through similar legal struggles as well as grassroots efforts. In the on-going case on GM Mustard in the Supreme Court of India the bench has taken the very appropriate stand that the court cannot get involved beyond a point in research complexities but it will see to it that the national interests are protected. One of the best ways of doing this is to see carefully what the evidence so far is regarding the GM crops.

       As the issues of food safety and health hazards are so important and as this and a few multinational companies appear to be so determined to gain increasing domination of the world food and farming markets by relentless lobbying for GM crops and agro-chemicals tied to these crops, it is important to look carefully at the scientific evidence available on this subject. All the time some of the most eminent scientists have been warning against GM crops but at the same time these powerful companies along with their influential collaborators in the government and the media have been claiming that the scientific evidence is on their side. So the common people are sometimes confused regarding whom to believe. This confusion can be cleared by looking at what the most eminent scientist of India on this subject said shortly before his death. This scientist was the most well-informed scientist in India on this subject. Our reference here is of course to Dr. Pushpa Bhargava.

Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava was the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and in addition he was also the Vice Chairperson of the National Knowledge Commission. Many people’s science movements looked upon him as their mentor. He had been appointed by the Supreme Court of India as an observer in the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee as he was widely perceived to be not only a very accomplished expert on this issue and that too of the highest integrity but in addition he was also seen on the basis of his past record as a very strong and persistent defender of public interest.

Therefore it is very useful and interesting to see what this very senior scientist with a comprehensive understanding of this issue had to say about GM crops. First of all he made a strong and clear effort to break the myth which had been created by relentless manipulation by the very powerful forces trying to spread GM crops In India. According to this myth most scientific research supports GM crops. While demolishing this myth Dr. Bhargava wrote, “ There are over 500 research publications by scientists of indisputable integrity , who have no conflict of interest, that establish harmful effects of GM crops on human, animal and plant health, and on the environment and biodiversity. For example, a recent paper by Indian scientists showed that the Bt gene in both cotton and brinjal leads to inhibition of growth and development of the plant. On the other hand, virtually every paper supporting GM crops is by scientists who have a declared conflict of interest or whose credibility and integrity can be doubted.”

In another review of recent trends titled ‘Food Without Choice’ (published in the Tribune ) Prof. Pushpa M. Bhargava , who was an internationally acclaimed authority on this subject, drew pointed attention to the “ attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified  crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations  (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political setup and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools.” Further he warned, “The ultimate goal of this attempt in India of which the leader is Monsanto, is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector.”

The strong stand of Dr. Bhargava against GM crops is supported by other eminent scientists in various parts of world. A group of eminent scientists organized under the Independent Science Panel have stated in very clear terms, “GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.

The Independent Science Panel (ISP) is a panel of scientists from many disciplines and countries, committed to the promotion of science for the public good. In a document titled ‘The case for a GMO-free Sustainable World’ the ISP has stated further, “By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the ‘accidental’ creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent genetic engineering experiment. Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.”

Several scientists involved in studying the implications and impacts of genetic engineering got together at the International Conference on ‘Redefining of Life Sciences’ organized at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. They issued a statement (the Penang Statement, or PS) which questioned the scientific basis of genetic engineering. This statement said :

        “The new biotechnology based upon genetic engineering makes the assumption that each specific feature of an organism is encoded in one or a few specific, stable genes, so that the transfer of these genes results in the transfer of a discrete feature. This extreme form of genetic reductionism has already been rejected by the majority of biologists and many other members of the intellectual community because it fails to take into account the complex interactions between genes and their cellular, extracellular and external environments that are involved in the development of all traits.

        “It has thus been impossible to predict the consequences of transferring a gene from one type of organism to another in a significant number of cases. The limited ability to transfer identifiable molecular characteristics between organisms through genetic engineering does not constitute the demonstration of any comprehensive or reliable system for predicting all the significant effects of transposing genes.”

Hence it is clear that to promote GM crops as a means of increasing crop productivity has no basis in scientific reality and is merely a manipulation tactic of the powerful GM lobby which uses highly selective data to somehow promote its case in the wake of ever-increasing evidence against GM crops. The powerful GM lobby uses many kinds of front-men but behind the scenes it is essentially controlled by the most powerful, resourceful and biggest multinational companies in the food, farming, agro-chemical and related sectors.

The edible sector and oilseeds sector is being guided more and more by big business interests, foreign interests and multinational company interests. At one point India was on the verge of achieving self-reliance in edible oils but this was disrupted due to reduced import duties and tariffs, resulting in the Indian market getting flooded by imported edible oil, harming and discouraging our oilseed farmers.

India has a very rich heritage of traditional oilseeds such as mustard, sesame, groundnut, coconut and a host of other crops. A rich diversity of traditional varieties known for their good yields, taste, suitability to local conditions are available , these are well-suited to local crop rotations and farmers have well-developed skills for growing these varieties. Ignoring this traditional wealth, the government policy under the influence of big business interests has opted for spreading palm oil and GM mustard varieties and both of these will prove highly disruptive for agro-ecology, according to all available evidence on palm oil as well as on GM crops. It is time today to stop big-business oriented disruption of our heritage and our environment and to opt for those available solutions which protect our farmers and protect our heritage and our environment.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, Protecting Earth for Children, Man over Machine (Gandhian Ideas for Our Times), A Day in 2071 and When the Two Streams Met (Freedom movement of India).

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