Asia-Pacific Analysis: A quaint court ruling on GM eggplant

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Speed read

  • The Supreme Court upholds a ban on field testing of gene-modified eggplant
  • Ruling is a major setback for supporters of GM research in Asia
  • Courts need to hire competent and independent scientists to rule on science issues

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The recent Philippine Supreme Court decision (8 December) to ban permanently the field testing of genetically modified eggplant may have derailed the steady march to acceptance of GMOs in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Philippines has been a pro-biotechnology regional leader. While Greenpeace and other activist groups have slowed down the adoption of genetically modified crops in the region, the Philippines has stood out as an early adopter.

Bt maize has been commercialised and safely entered the human food chain in the Philippines since 2003, with 800,000 acres currently planted to the crop. Golden Rice, developed by the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, is now being field-tested. Bt eggplant contains the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium which is toxic to the fruit and worm borer, a major eggplant pest.

But some scientists are up in arms against the Supreme Court judgement. British environmentalist and writer Mark Lynas says the court decision is a “huge disappointment in the scientific community”. [1]

Emil Javier, former president of the Philippine National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and a pioneer plant breeder, adds that it was a “huge letdown for the Philippine science community”. [2]

Competence on science issues

In my view, the Supreme Court decision raises the issue of whether a court of law is competent to judge on scientific issues. However, another Philippine scientist in policy analysis, Silliman University president Ben Malayang, disagrees with this position.

Malayang, who wrote a position paper submitted to the Court of Appeals (CA) which was eventually used by the Supreme Court in making its decision, tells SciDev.Net that apparently the CA merely weighed the evidence on both sides but did not rule which side was correct.

One group of scientists says Bt eggplant is safe. Another says it is not safe. In Malayang’s view, the Supreme Court did not make a judgement on which side is valid. The high court only said it is uncertain about the safety of Bt eggplant, and until both sides can agree, let’s stop the field testing.

The Supreme Court, with just one abstention, voted to halt the field trials on the grounds of precautionary principle, or erring on the side of caution, which is the Greenpeace argument.

Since scientists can’t agree with 100 per cent certainty that there is no irreversible harm from the introduction of Bt talong into the environment. Greenpeace exploited this very fact and the justices agreed.

For that matter, we note that not even mobile and smartphones can guarantee 100 per cent safety from radiation and no one is challenging it.

There is also a subtle note in the opinion written by Supreme Court associate justice Martin Villarama Jr. His opinion noted that the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISSAA), which petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse the CA decision, is partly funded by USAID. This implies that the ISSAA is a tool to promote US interest.

So was the decision coloured by politics rather than based on sound science?

The problem with not deciding on which side’s arguments are sound and valid, the Supreme Court in effect sided with the party that wanted to stop field testing. In short, the Supreme Court did not know enough to decide which side was scientifically valid.

“the Supreme Court decision raises the issue of whether a court of law is competent to judge on scientific issues.”

– Crispin Maslog

On this point, Lynas says that “the competence of the Court to adjudicate on matters of law is not in question. However, its judgement that the science on the question of Bt talong and GMOs in general is not settled appears highly skewed” and depended on “biased assessments” submitted by Greenpeace. [1]

Lynas adds that most of Greenpeace’s evidence were never published in scientific journals but commissioned and paid for by Greenpeace. On the other hand, the evidence submitted by the pro-biotechnology side came from “hundreds of high-quality safety studies conducted by reputable scientists internationally over the years . . . and supported by every scientific academy in the world, including the NAST in the Philippines”. [1]

Quaint theory of nature

Javier quoted the Supreme Court decision which said: there is “balance in Nature [that] should not be disturbed. Bt talong is a technology which disturbs the natural balance and therefore is a grave and present danger to . . . Filipinos’ constitutional right to a balanced ecology.” [2]

Javier said this “quaint theory” is absurd. Its absurdity “should be obvious to any serious student of science and biology. The whole of civilisation, the business of agriculture and the practice of medicine are precisely premised on altering/tilting/modifying the balance of nature to suit man’s needs and purposes”. [2]

So the question remains: Is a court of law competent to judge scientific evidence and issues?

One thing is certain, it is definitely time for courts of law to hire independent, competent and unbiased scientists to help them in interpreting scientific evidence and issues to avoid making science-related cases becoming a battle of eloquence and public relations.

Crispin Maslog is a former journalist and science journalism professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños and director of the Silliman School of Journalism, Philippines. He is a consultant of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication and board chairperson of the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, both based in Manila.


[1] Mark Lynas Dark day for science (Inquirer.net, 15 December 2015)
[2] Emil Q. Javier A misapplication of the Writ of Kalikasan (Part 1) (Manila Bulletin, 18 December 2015)