By Alden M. Monzon, Reporter

UN official says questions remain on GMO health impact, business practices

Posted on February 28, 2015

A UNITED Nations (UN) representative undertaking a weeklong visit to the Philippines expressed her opposition to the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as she concluded her mission to evaluate the country’s food problems.

At a news conference at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Makati, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Hilal Elver said a number of questions remain unanswered about the GMO approach, including long-term health effects and the business models practiced by multinational seed companies.

“GMOs are a huge thing and there is a huge discussion on it. I am against GMOs for several reasons… We don’t know the health impacts of GMO in the long term,” Ms. Elver told reporters.

She added that the aggressive defense of seed patents by multinationals has led to small farmers being accused of infringing on their intellectual property.

“They take away the farmers’ seeds from them and the corporations make a business from it,” she said.

For these reasons, “the use of GMOs should be carefully studied, and, I’m not sure if it should be accepted,” she said.

The UN representative, who is part of the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, launched her visit on Feb. 20. The final report of her findings, Ms. Elver said, will be sent to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2016.

The UN representative’s remarks come as the Philippines struggles to achieve self-sufficiency in rice, and triggered a response from stakeholders who defended genetic modification methods.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Los Baños-based non-profit research body, said that some crops -- particularly rice -- do not have sufficient nutritional value in their unmodified form, making it necessary to fortify these staples.

“The unique advantage of genetic modification lies in its ability to incorporate novel genes with useful traits into new rice varieties. These include genes from plants and organisms unrelated to rice that could not be transferred using other breeding methods,” the IRRI said in a statement emailed to BusinessWorld by its Head of Communication, Antonio G. Lambino II.

For his part, Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP)Executive Secretary Abraham J. Manalo said that GMO technology has been certified as safe reputable global and national institutions.

“All internationally-recognized science organizations have declared that food from modern biotechnology is as safe as their non-biotech or traditional counterparts,” he said. These include the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. National Academy of Science, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the French Academy of Science, the UK Royal Society of Medicine, the Union of German Academics of Sciences and Humanities, and our very own (Philippine) National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and (Philippine) Food and Drugs Administration,” Mr. Manalo said in a statement emailed to BusinessWorld.

“It is important that farmers be given the choice as to the seed type and variety they want to plant and harvest. In the Philippines, more than 300 thousand corn farmers have decided to use biotech seeds for their corn fields,” he added.