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Filipino Ruling on Bt Eggplant

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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

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

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