The Philippines has been host-country to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) since 1960, or for about 63 years now, with its Los Baños, Laguna headquarters as the base for many of the scientific studies that aim to develop high-yielding and more disease-resistant rice varieties. And IRRI’s work here has been doing a lot of good for many rice-producing and rice-eating nations.
We are even hosting in October the 6th International Rice Congress — touted to be the world’s largest rice congress — with the theme “Accelerating Transformation of Rice-Based Food Systems: From Gene to Globe.” The international meet aims to bring together “scientists, experts, farmers, and decision-makers from the government, private, and public sectors” all over the world to help “shape a more inclusive, sustainable, and secure future for global food systems.”
It is ironic that as we continue to host the IRRI headquarters, and prepare for the rice congress in October, we also await the result of a lawsuit initiated by our own farmers and scientists involving the propagation of “Golden Rice,” a variety that IRRI itself helped develop. The Philippine lawsuit is now before the Supreme Court.
The petitioners, which were granted a temporary restraining order by the court in April through a Writ of Kalikasan, want to stop the commercial release of Golden Rice and Bt eggplants. They claim these are genetically modified organisms or GMOs that are a cause for environmental and safety concerns.
In a press statement, the Supreme Court said the petitioners want the tribunal to stop the government from commercially propagating Golden Rice and issuing biosafety permits for the commercial propagation of Bt eggplant; to cease and desist from commercially propagating Golden Rice and Bt eggplant until such time that proof of safety and compliance with legal requirements is shown; declare all biosafety permits for Golden Rice and Bt eggplant null and void; and perform independent risk and impact assessments, obtain the prior and informed consent of farmers and indigenous peoples, and implement liability mechanisms in case of damage, as required by law.
“Petitioners alleged, among others, that both Golden Rice and Bacillus thuringiensis eggplant (Bt eggplant) are genetically modified organisms. They claimed that Golden Rice, which is patented to Syngenta, a transnational agrochemical corporation, is a rice that has been modified by inserting a gene from maize and a gene from bacteria found in soil which allows the plant to biosynthesize beta-carotene in the edible parts of rice,” the court said.
“They also argued that Bt eggplant was designed so that the plant would produce its own toxin, to kill the fruit and shoot borer, which is one of several common pests that consume and damage eggplants,” it added.
Farmers have been protesting against “Golden Rice” for the last 10 years. In 2013, genetically modified rice in a testing plot in Bicol was illegally uprooted by farmers just as it was about to be harvested. The rice would have been submitted for safety tests. This was 20 years after Golden Rice development was initiated in 1993 by German scientists.
All told, it has taken researchers 30 years to finally make Golden Rice commercially available. But all that now hangs in the balance in the Philippines, waiting for legal and not scientific experts to decide whether Golden Rice is safe for consumption, and that its propagation does not result in environmental damage. In short, 30 years of science is about to be evaluated as a question of law.
IRRI had helped with putting up the trial rice field in Bicol, but protesters alleged that Golden Rice was dangerous to humans and the environment. Incidentally, in 2013, the Court of Appeals ruled that genetically modified eggplant “violated the constitutional rights of Filipinos to health and a balanced ecology,” the BBC had reported.
It makes no difference, of course, that Golden Rice, a variety with a boosted capacity to produce vitamin A, is backed by 30 years of research and development. As early as five years ago, in 2018, Canada and the United States already approved Golden Rice and declared it safe for consumption.
But it was only in 2021, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, that the Philippines reportedly became the first country to officially issue the biosafety permit for commercially propagating vitamin A-infused Golden Rice. But even before any commercial propagation could occur, the Supreme Court restrained it on the basis of allegations that Golden Rice posed health and environmental risks.
Going by the 2013 ruling of the Court of Appeals on GMO eggplant, there is an even chance that the Supreme Court will also strike down Golden Rice now for being a GM crop. Its issuance of a Writ of Kalikasan in April is already indicative of its possible leaning on the issue. And it is unsurprising how petitioners included GMO eggplant in its latest petition. But the real target is Golden Rice, it seems.
Where all this is going nobody knows. Most likely, for Golden Rice, down the drain. Golden Rice R&D took 30 years to reach commercial production stage. That, in itself, already shows the level of resistance and opposition to it. At every step of the way, it found itself questioned, resisted, opposed, even vandalized, and scandalized. Should we expect anything to change now?
I support any research to produce better rice varieties, and any effort to boost the production of safe and environmentally sustainable food. I am not necessarily against GMOs, as long as they are proved safe for human consumption and ecologically safe. But I am concerned how law can be used to trump scientific studies and peer review. Is 30 years of R&D not enough?
Our agriculture has not improved in the last 50 years. Output is inconsistent if not unstable, and pretty much dependent on weather. In turn, food supply —and food prices — cannot be kept consistently affordable without necessarily squeezing farmers’ margins. Our food distribution leaves much to be desired, favoring traders over producers. Our farmers remain poor, and our food costs remain high.
One can always argue that Vitamin A-fortified rice is not necessarily high-yielding or disease-resistant. On the other hand, I am almost certain that 30 years of R&D also helped address these concerns. Moreover, if the Supreme Court decides against Golden Rice and Bt eggplant in general, what happens then to all other studies and development involving genetic modification of crops and food?
Public opinion, in general, is still against GMO food. But we’ve had small wins, like Golden Rice and Bt eggplant. But even these are now at a crossroads locally. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decision will become the standard of measure, with law as gauge, and not research and science, to determine whether any grain, crop, or food can be commercially produced and distributed in the country. For now, genetic modification is the issue. In the future, it can be something else.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council