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Filipino Ruling on Bt Eggplant

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A recent decision by an appeals court in the Phillipines about genetically modified food was a striking victory for environmentalists who oppose many modern technologies that are ‘destroying nature’, and an ominous defeat for science and reason and the thoughtful search for solutions to some of humanity’s biggest problems. In a very real way, the decision also threatens the lives and health of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The court ordered a halt to field trials of eggplant bioengineered to increase productivity and reduce the use of industrial pesticides. This genetic modification, inserting a gene from a common soil bacterium (Baccillus thuringiensis or Bt) that produces a naturally occurring pesticide, has been in use globally for more than a decade and is used in a quarter of the corn and half the cotton grown worldwide. It has been extensively researched, and the overwhelming scientific consensus is that it poses no threat to human health, and no more of a threat to the environment than any method of hybridization to create new traits in plants, which humans have been doing since the dawn of agriculture.

The court heard plenty of testimony about that research. But it also heard from Greenpeace and other opponents of this modern form of hybridization who, short on evidence of any actual danger from GMO foods, relied more on well-established emotional arguments to make their case. They warned that scientists still don’t know for sure whether there might be a risk, that human or environmental safety can’t be absolutely guaranteed. And they appealed to the universal moral cause of protecting nature, arguing that the Bt eggplant filed trials were nothing less than a threat to Filipino’s constitutional rights to ‘a balanced and healthy ecology’. The court bought the whole emotional case, using logic and language that could bring modern society to a screeching halt.

The ruling said GMO foods are “…an alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology.” Which is true, but a dangerously extreme basis for their ruling, given that the human species interacts with and alters the ‘otherwise natural state’ of our environment with pretty much everything we do. The idea that a ‘natural state of affairs in our ecology’ somehow exists free of the impacts of the human animal, or ever did, or ever could, has Thoreauvian appeal, but it’s a naïve McKibben-esque environmentalist utopianism that comes right out of the Deep Ecology playbook. Imagine what society would have to forego if this standard was consistently applied across all of what modern human life involves.

The court made another astonishing leap beyond reason. It found that the field trials of Bt eggplants “could not be declared…safe to human health and to our ecology with full scientific certainty (my emphasis).” That adopts a preposterously severe version of the Precautionary Principle (PP) – the idea that we shouldn’t approve products or processes until their proponents prove with reasonable certainty that they aren’t dangerous. Precaution – better safe than sorry – makes a lot of sense, and many regulations (though not all) are built on this principle. But the court’s extreme version of the PP enshrines in law that anything someone is worried about is assumed guilty (dangerous) until proven innocent (safe) beyond any doubt. Again, imagine what that appealing but ludicrous standard – absolute scientific proof of safety – would do if applied against most of how we live our modern lives.

The court also seemed swayed by an important emotional/psychological characteristic that makes some risks scarier than others. In general people worry more about human-made risks than natural ones, regardless of what actual evidence of possible danger may say. The court acted to ban the field trials in part because they ‘involve the willful and deliberate alteration (my emphasis) of the genetic traits of a living element of the ecosystem…” While it is true that genetic engineering makes this form of hybridization more human-made than natural (which is also true for other industrial hybridization techniques we’ve been using for decades, including blasting plants with mutagenic radiation), what does the fact that a human-made process created it have to do with whether the stuff is safe?

This common emotional ‘fear factor’ lies at the very heart of environmentalist rejection of not only genetically modified organisms but many modern technologies. So does an egalitarian cultural worldview common among environmentalists that society should be fair and flexible and afford equal opportunity for all, a worldview that rejects the power, and the products and profits, of the One Percent and Big Corporations that limit that flexibility and opportunity. This explains why resistance to GM food is so woven with venom for Monsanto, a deep passion that also has nothing to do with whether the technology itself is safe.

There is some danger that the Filipino ruling might serve as precedent for courts elsewhere that are considering GMO technology. But a very real danger exists that this ruling might inform other actions by the judiciary in the Phillipines, and that has direct implications for ‘Golden Rice’, a species of rice modified to include beta carotene, which could help supply vitamin A to the 190 million children and 19 million pregnant women in 122 countries who suffer vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a type of malnutrition that kills 1–2 million people a year and causes 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness. An estimated four and a half million Filipinos suffer VAD.

The International Rice Research Institute, based in the Phillipines, has been conducting field trials of Golden Rice, in part to determine its safety both to humans and the environment. By enshrining in law the anti-GMO arguments of environmentalists about Bt eggplant, and rejecting science and reason in the process, the Phillipine Court of Appeals has placed in real jeopardy one of the most important potential advances in agriculture and human health since the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

It is one thing for you and I to share the common desire to protect nature from the too-often dramatically real harms of modern technology, and anger at the greedy selfish corporations that profit by these harms. It is quite another for policy makers, including judges, to be so taken by similar passions that they ignore scientific evidence and adopt an approach to risk management that is more idealistic than realistic, more naïve than achievable, and enshrine in law a Deep Ecology utopianism about nature that denies society all the solutions that modern science and technology have to offer. As emotionally appealing as such an approach may feel, it carries profound risks for us all.

Image: Edd Gumban, Philstar.com

David Ropeik About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of 'How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts'. Follow on Twitter @dropeik.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 20 Comments

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  1. 1. Eric_Bowen 9:27 am 06/3/2013

    The arguments on both sides of this argument are pretty weak. “GMOs could save our food supply!” and “GMOs could kill our food supply!” ignore that GMOs do nothing to solve the biggest problems in our food system. The “get a bigger hammer” approach of agricultural engineering ignores that ecosystems have feedback loops. This has made a very useful management tools (glyphosate) totally ineffective with the advent of superweeds. Then, of course we waste half the food we produce and have a policy landscape that undermines smallholders worldwide. The American landscape was once covered with pasture systems that absorb carbon and nitrogen, with pockets of row crops everywhere. Now we have row crops covering the Mississippi watershed sloshing nitrogen into the ocean and carbon into the atmosphere to feed cows and other livestock on small fractions of the landscape. These engineering approaches have resulted in a bizzarro farm scape that is causing huge problems that have nothing to do with GMOs (which themselves reflect that same “get a bigger hammer” mentality).
    Get a grip everyone. Think about the system, not how angry you are about anti-GMO court rulings or the Monsanto bogeyman.

    Link to this
  2. 2. NemoInPyjamas 10:28 am 06/3/2013

    NPKs from megacities being systematically thrown to the sea. Factory farms throwing NPKs to rivers and creating huge algae blooms seen from space. Topsoil completely destroyed. If this sewer waste isn’t handled which is the REAL REASON for World hunger to whole World will turn a desert. And biotech wants to solve hunger with Bt crops proven to create tumors on rats? Do we talk the same scientific language here?

    Put aside your Biotech profits and start using your brain, ffs.

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  3. 3. NemoInPyjamas 10:30 am 06/3/2013

    No edit button to correct grammar mistakes?

    Link to this
  4. 4. NemoInPyjamas 10:43 am 06/3/2013

    N is abundant in air. What about P and K? What happens if no micronutrients are added to the soil? Is there a process to bring this nutrients back from the sea? What is the relation of fungus and plant growth? How is soil stability preserved with the fungus? What is the relation between legumes and fungus growth? peak-of-Oil and monocrops? Relation between legume trees, trees and moist? Permaculture swales and water usage reduction dependencies? Aquifer collapse? If the NPks and micronutrients go to the cities and then to the sea what will happen once fossil fuel prices start to go up and BILLIONS will need to go back into exhausted soils?

    ARE WE SCIENTIFIC HERE? OR JUST GMO LOBBY FRESH MONEY?

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  5. 5. jaythakar 2:59 pm 06/3/2013

    David Ropeik starts out with criticism of the environmentists, however, it equally important to keep in mind that GMO industry has not been always truthful to the benefit of mankind. I also say that the issue of GMO is emotionally charged. So we don’t know always if we are throwing the baby away with the bath water. Both the sides need to exert caution. Only time tells if you are riding a horse or donkey!

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  6. 6. RSchmidt 4:34 pm 06/3/2013

    I can see both sides of the argument. I would suggest that nations take the position that all food crops and livestock grown within its boarders be patent free or that the patents be held publicly. This gives the people a certain degree of food security. The people can then prioritize traits. For example, a for-profit company like Monsanto has as its primary requirement to build stickiness with their customers. They can do this by preventing seeding and creating crops resistant to their own herbicide. A publicly owned crop doesn’t have those requirements. Its requirements fall more inline with the interests of all stakeholders as the owners are also the stakeholders. They are looking for crops that efficiently use resources and reduce costs. Ultimately a people should have control over their food supply.

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  7. 7. em_allways_right 4:52 pm 06/3/2013

    People are destroying nature, we don’t need genetically modified plants for that. People should be more worried about overpopulation and deforestation.

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  8. 8. macgrant 4:57 pm 06/3/2013

    As cold as it seems, let them starve. Willful ignorance and stupidity _must_ have a cost if we have any hope of ending them. Once folks realize their kids are dying so some professional fundraisers can maintain their lifestyles they’ll insist on decisions based on rationality. (Or so I hope.)

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  9. 9. marclevesque 5:52 pm 06/3/2013

    The problem for some, children and adults, in the Philippines is malnutrition and poverty (and the effects of selfish long term international meddling). These conditions need to change. Golden rice could be at best a temporary fix for the excluded sections of the population (if the new golden rice version 2 has more than trace amounts of vitamin A). But it’s usefulness is not a given as the distribution of vitamin A supplements to alleviate the deficiency has already been happening for decades. But again, relying on supplements or bio-engineered ‘feed’ from Monsanto to alleviate the problem of vitamin A deficiency borders on contempt for the suffering and is not a way to resolve the issues of poverty, malnutrition and exclusion in the Philipines and elsewhere.

    Lets be clear : a bit of variety, a bowl of rice with a bit of carrot, peppers, sweet patatoes, green leaf vegetables or some other food makes a lot more sense on the road to recovery for a child suffering from malnutrition.

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  10. 10. Qiloff 11:18 am 06/4/2013

    All life is a GMO. If you subscribe to Darwin, then it is self evident. If you subscribe to Creationism, again GMO’s are intelligently designed. Either way it is just bio-chemistry. By the hand of Man or by the hand of the Creator, the same result is adaptation. In the final analysis it does not matter whether it is adaptation or modification. There are 9 billion of us, I would say that is the biggest GMO effecting this bio-macro-sphere. Focusing on a gene (bt) is really narrow sighted.

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  11. 11. rknight101 11:49 am 06/4/2013

    Despite Mr. Ropeik’s industry-serving alarmist statements, which are emotionally charged and NOT based on facts, the court made the correct decision based on science and concern for public health and safety.

    Here are the facts about GMOS:

    GMO Myths and Truths
    An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops
    Version 1.3
    by
    Michael Antoniou
    Claire Robinson
    John Fagan

    “…evidence presented in this report indicates that GM crops:

    Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods,
    and pose different risks from non-GM crops

    Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts

    Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety

    Do not increase yield potential

    Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it

    Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds”, compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops

    Have mixed economic effects

    Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity

    Do not offer effective solutions to climate change

    Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops

    Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.”

    http://www.nongmoproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/GMO_Myths_and_Truths_1.31.pdf

    Link to this
  12. 12. temblor 5:20 pm 06/4/2013

    NemoInPyjamas, the “study” that purported to show that rats fed GM food developed enormous tumors was completely and totally discredited. The magazine that published it has withdrawn it, the EU scientific community as a whole has roundly rejected it. If you read any details at all about how the “study” was done you would realized it was phony.

    Surely you knew that?

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  13. 13. temblor 6:20 pm 06/4/2013

    Eric_Bowen: There is no such thing as a “superweed”, it is simply a weed resistant to Roundup. How do you control it? Very simply, the same way you did before Roundup was developed, i.e. the plethora of other herbicides that still exist.

    Likewise, there is no BT resistant “superworm” about to take over the midwest. It is, simply, a worm that’s now resistant to BT. It can be controlled one of two ways:
    1. Develop another strain of BT that it’s not resistant to, or
    2. However it was controlled before the corn with BT components was developed.

    Hysteria will, indeed, stir up the hysterical, but does nothing to further sane discussion, or solve problems.

    Link to this
  14. 14. rknight101 7:30 pm 06/4/2013

    From the same link in my previous post:

    “Based on the evidence presented in this report, there is no need to take risks with GM crops when effective, readily available, and sustainable solutions to the problems that GM technology is claimed to address already exist. Conventional plant breeding, in some cases helped by safe modern technologies like gene mapping and marker assisted selection, continues to outperform GM in producing high-yield, drought-tolerant, and pest- and disease-resistant crops that can meet our present and future food needs.”

    Link to this
  15. 15. Witan 10:24 pm 06/4/2013

    I am not against GM crops as such, but I feel that the Bt gene technology could be dangerous. It has been shown to cause environmental problems, and also health hazards to animals. Glyphosate-resistance technology has only one use, to promote sale of glyphosate. Further, neither Bt gene nor glyphosate resistance gene is effective in practice any more.
    Scientific American owes it to its readers, (1) not to allow it to be used as a lobbying forum for Monsanto and other GM companies; and (2) avoid absurd mistakes like “Phillipines” and “Baccillus”.

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  16. 16. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:53 am 06/9/2013

    I speaks badly of “Scientific American” that its editors especially invited this rather poor blog post.

    I generally expect serious discussion about facts, not a string of poor PR presentations from various lobbyists. Who knows, maybe GMO might even defend itself with rational arguments?

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  17. 17. mpopcorn 12:38 pm 06/10/2013

    Philippines. Philippines.

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  18. 18. macgrant 4:29 pm 06/10/2013

    @witan

    I’m sure the thousands of farmers who pay a significant premium for Bt and/or RoundUp-resistant seed would be surprised to hear that “neither Bt gene nor glyphosate resistance gene is effective in practice any more”. Perhaps you should check your sources for accuracy.

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  19. 19. kienhua68 5:58 pm 06/10/2013

    Ignorance rules the day. Genetic modification has been going on since life first appeared. Just because we can make it happen sooner than nature can is no reason to be suspect that it’s wrong.

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  20. 20. Christopher Dudley 5:33 pm 10/15/2013

    I love the quote about fears of technology bringing “modern society to a screeching halt.” Unfortunately, it is going to take a controlled study to prove that modern society is bringing modern society to a screeching halt. Luckily, we have such a study ongoing, modern agriculture driven Global Climate Change. Unfortunately there is only an n-1 (the atmosphere), so I’m not sure if the eventual published paper on the extinction of humanity will carry much weight with the rabid environmentalist crowd who are all so busy trying to stop the experiment to begin with.

    Link to this

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