IN the past few decades, genetic engineering has been thought of as a means to contribute to agricultural production. In light of the fact that many more countries are now beset with food scarcity (not to mention the food shortages brought about by the war in Ukraine) and to cope with overpopulation alongside poor soil and climatic conditions not conducive for increased yields, genetic engineering of crops and food is once again a topic of debate, especially as it relates to the interconnected UN Sustainable Development Goals (zero hunger, responsible production and consumption, good health and well-being, climate action, etc.).
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), referring for the purpose of this narrative only to crops and food, were developed in a laboratory process called genetic engineering that results in a new plant organism which would possess better genes than all others in its species. GMOs are usually developed to gain better resistance against pests or other perils to the organism, and even yield more produce. Examples are: Bt maize (corn), Bt eggplant (talong), Bt soybeans, Bt canola, Bt rice, Bt tomatoes, Bt sugarcane, Bt papaya, Bt squash, Bt cotton, Bt apple and many others.
Bt talong controversy
In fact, in the Philippine jurisdiction, we have a Supreme Court decision in a case concerning Bt talong (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, Inc. V. Greenpeace Southeast Asia, et al., GR 209271, Dec. 8, 2015 and July 26, 2016). In that case, Greenpeace and other respondents sought to restrain the BT talong field trials claiming they violated their right to a healthy environment. The BT talong, which is actually a GMO, was undergoing field tests, and Greenpeace et al. cited various threats to the environment. The Supreme Court granted the petition and had the field tests restrained as it considered the environmental damage it could do. However, in a 2016 resolution, the Supreme Court overturned its ruling as the field trials were already completed.
What are some of the adverse effects of genetically modified crops and food on human health and the environment? First, GMOs are not natural because they had their genes modified. As a consequence, they could disrupt the ecological balance and could start a slippery descent to environmental damage. It could also affect other plants and humans who consume them as pests, or various viruses could potentially evolve due to the high concentration of bacterium toxins (which are used to make GMOs pest-resistant). Second, when pests are forced away from GMOs which have become pest-resistant, the pests would then go to a different plant which used to be unthreatened. This carries risks because it would endanger a different crop instead.
On the other hand, while GMOs could be more resistant to insect damage, herbicides and plant viruses, those living modified organisms could yield more produce which is vital to solve world hunger. But then again, in attaining the goal of food sufficiency, we must also take care of the environment as part of our inter-generational responsibility. We cannot sacrifice the environment for our advancement — both man and nature must thrive in harmony.
At this point, genetically modified food and crops have already been introduced and made available worldwide. Almost simultaneously during the past decades, an environmental law principle, popularly referred to as the precautionary principle, evolved from being a “soft law aspirational goal” to its present status as an authoritative norm recognized by governments and international organizations as a firm guide to activities affecting the environment. From its original connotation of “take care” or “better safe than sorry,” the precautionary principle mandates that studies precede action and requires that we proceed slowly in the face of uncertainty. Ultimately, the principle requires constant testing and monitoring the effects of GMOs.
The precautionary requirements have been included in a wide variety of multilateral environmental agreements, among them, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol. Thus, the Biodiversity Convention states in its preamble that “when there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biodiversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat….” The Cartagena Biosafety Protocol which governs modified living organisms, on the other hand, states, “Lack of scientific certainty … shall not prevent that Party from making a decision, as appropriate, with regard to the import of that living modified organism intended for direct use as food or feed, or processing in order to avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects.”
Exactly how these sanctions translate into action varies with each problem. A situation requires “an anticipatory response in instances of uncertainty where a violation has not yet occurred and no harm has been done, but where a strong risk of such a violation exists.” Actually, the principle has transformed the process of decision-making, by recognizing the validity of environmental concerns and requiring some level of clarity and certainty before risky initiatives are begun or made public.
Be that as it may, the debate on genetic engineering to ensure food security remains polarized. Critics still view GM crops as destructive of nature, undermine human health and makes farmers dependent on seed producers. The industry and pro-GM products tend to play down any risk of genetic engineering saying in particular that there is now a win-win situation with a commercial seed company and the farmers making profits at the same time, especially in developing countries. The reality, however, is that while some may profit from the technology, others may not. Only an unbiased look at GMOs in practice will show what it takes to make farmers’ lives easier and what needs to be done to minimize risks.
What is most important in the debates over GMOs is that science is not ignored. In fact, the precautionary principle promotes more science because it requires continuous monitoring as well as research into less polluting alternatives. Good science disseminated by those who are into the technology can calm fears and persuade the public that the genetically modified seed is safe.
Some commentators have explained the precautionary principle by emphasizing that it shifts the burden of proof: “When scientific information is in doubt, the party that wishes to develop a new crop, for instance, has the burden of demonstrating that the proposed change will not produce unacceptable adverse impacts on existing resources and species including humans.”
On our part, we should keep an open mind and consider the opportunities that genetically modified crops provide in terms of food security. In that connection, a review of the government’s regulatory framework on genetic engineering should be done and proper labeling of GMOs relating to crops and food already in the market ought to be pursued in earnest.
With more time and experience, the details of the precautionary principle will come into clearer focus. Most important of all, it has recognized the validity of environmental concerns by requiring some level of clarity and certainty before risky genetic engineering is done, released or made available commercially.
As a Chinese saying goes, “A calamity is a time for opportunity.” The outbreak of the war in Ukraine could be an opportunity for further transformative food systems research to confront two of the biggest challenges faced by humanity — climate change and food inaccessibility and insecurity.