Our work on genetic engineering 

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Elenita C. Dano explains what lies behind attempts by multinational corporations and the politicians who serve their interests, and how and why local people are resisting.

The work of our organisation is primarily focused on community-based conservation, development and sustainable utilisation of plant genetic resources, on seeds. We also work on policy advocacy and lobbying on issues that directly affect seed conservation. In addition to the Philippines we also work in four other countries in South East Asia, namely Thailand, Bhutan, Vietnam and Laos. 

SEARICE was founded in 1978, but only started work on seeds issues in 1989. The decision to focus on this issue arose from the fundamental criticism of the effects and implications of the so called green revolution on farming communities and genetic resources in Southeast Asia. 

The green revolution has indeed increased yield by 114% over 30 years, yet it  is striking to note that despite this increase of yield there was an increase of 11% in terms of the number of hungry people across Asia. This goes to show that there is no direct correlation between higher food production and fewer hungry people.

 

We know that the main problem we are facing is the distribution and the maldistribution of resources -food in particular - across the world. The second criticism which can be levelled against the green revolution is that despite an increase of food production a very clear erosion of genetic diversity took place across South East Asia in general. Statistics show that there used to be more than 100,000 varieties of rice across Asia at the turn of the last century. However, at the height of the green revolution only 15 modern varieties were grown. In the Philippines, literature shows that there used to be more than 3,500 different varieties of rice in the 1950s, but that in the 1980s there were only 8 modern varieties planted in millions of hectares of agricultural land. This is largely due to the massive introduction of modern varieties produced by public research institutes, such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).  Governments also actively promoted the green revolution technology from the 1960s to the 1980s via credit and support programmes extended to farmers who chose to use the new modern varieties.

The green revolution has also made farmers dependent on a package of technologies that are produced outside of the farm. Moreover, it has promoted the use of chemical pesticides and inorganic fertilisers. It is still the practice across South East Asia of government banks or even private banks not extending credit, loans or crop insurance to farmers who do not use this package of technology. In extreme cases, such as Indonesia, the military even had to pressure farmers into using modern technologies and leaving the traditional technology behind. 

The most serious criticism of the green revolution that brought SEARICE into this kind of work was the observation that farmers were left disempowered. By being highly dependent on technology and seeds produced by researchers and scientists, farmers became passive recipients of technology. Our main aim is to bring back power to farmers' hands. We want to give them the opportunity to do research in their fields, to share skills among each other and to provide modern skills in breeding as well as access to traditional rice varieties that are no longer available in many fields. We feel that farmers should be given the opportunity to conduct breeding between traditional and also modern varieties. Our main approach is to provide various options to farmers. 

This work, which focuses on community-based conservation of seeds is done in combination with active policy advocacy on seed-related issues at the national, regional and international level. We believe that we should not just focus on the local work, but also bring these issues to the lobbying and policy levels. This will raise awareness among other sectors and governments and make clear that there are efforts on the ground, efforts that need to be supported. During the past eight years SEARICE has been working on regional and international links in terms of policy advocacy. We want to bring the issues of farmers and farming communities to higher levels. We do not claim to be farmers, but most of the people we are working with at SEARICE are agronomists who also are involved in community organising. 

Our lobbying work is based on what we see as three fundamental rights of farming communities:

  The right to resources. This includes biological and genetic resources as well   as the right to food and entails the right to economic opportunities and   options.

 

  The right to information. The communities need a balanced view of the issues   at stake in order to make intelligent choices.

  The right to make decisions based on balanced information. Farmers and   communities do have the right to say no, something which is the bottom line in   our work on policy advocacy. 

  

On August 29, 2001 about 800 farmers and representatives of civil society organisations in the Philippines went to a field trial site conducted by Monsanto using Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) Corn and began pulling out the Bt Corn plant. This was the first direct action taken against Bt Corn, a genetically modified crop, in South East Asia, and it represented the culmination of the work that SEARICE and other organisations have been doing in the area of genetic engineering since we started this work in 1994. 

In the beginning of our involvement with the issue, not many people wanted to listen to what we had to say, since they thought the development of biotechnology in this area to be unlikely and remote. SEARICE was, however, very determined to raise the issue of genetic engineering at the time because we were closely following developments in the US and Europe. In the US there was already talk of commercialisation and hundreds of field trials were conducted. 

Our work started off at a high level, not in the small farming communities since people thought it was such a remote issue. What we did instead was to convince some members of the legislature of the Congress to organise a public hearing on genetic engineering experiments on rice which were carried out by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

This public hearing was not appreciated by IRRI and their supporters in the scientific and academic communities. They had imported substantial quantities of genetically modified rice, particularly from Switzerland, without informing the public. They did this in spite of the fact that the Philippines has a biosafety guideline which allows for public information. SEARICE only found out about these imports through Greenpeace-International.  

After the hearing it was hard work to try to seize all opportunities for public and media debate related to genetic resources, agricultural discussions and genetic engineering. Our "prayers" were answered when Monsanto entered the scene in 1998 and started talking about collaboration with public research on Bt Corn. It was of course a bad sign that Bt Corn was coming, but it did provide a face for the debate since it suddenly became a real issue. It was no longer 'science fiction'

The timing was ripe to bring the issue back to the communities and more and more communities and other civil society organisations begun to show interest. We did at the time start suspecting that Bt Corn was about to be tested in the Philippines because the government expressed that it was about to introduce a law which would include guidelines on the field trials of GM crops. Public hearings were conducted and NGOs put up some very noisy protests, questioning the whole process and the substance of the draft guidelines.

In order to put things in their right perspective, it is important to point out that despite the fact that there is a very strong civil society movement in the Philippines and despite the fact that the government is relatively democratic in many ways compared to other governments in South East Asia, there is a lot of plain show in terms of democratic processes. Public hearings are called for the sake of it, but the process is not always very democratic. NGOs and other organisations are called in just for the sake of having them officially participating, but no attention is given to what they have to say. During the discussion leading to the formulation of the field trials guideline in late 1997 to early 1998, the final document was identical to the government's original proposal. What worries us is that this process gives an illusion of political democracy, while in reality it is disempowering since it erodes people's confidence in participating in democratic processes. 

SEARICE has also been focusing on legislative work. We were able to convince several legislators in the Lower House and the Upper House of our Congress to produce bills and resolutions about GM crops. There have also been about ten bills on mandatory labelling, but unfortunately they are just bills. They did not even go beyond the committee hearings. According to our allies in the Senate, this is due to the strong lobbying on the part of GM companies such as Monsanto and by the US embassy. The bills are hence gathering dust and have not led to any substantial discussions. 

I attended one of the hearings on the mandatory labelling bill where industry argued that if laws on labelling are passed, the cost of labelling will be passed on to the consumer. Naturally, legislators do not want to lose votes so they remained quiet. This is a very frustrating situation for us. We have, however, had positive experiences and successes at the local legislative level where work is more encouraging. 

The first field trial of GM crops in the Philippines was situated in General Santos City in the island of Mindanao, in the south. Although city government officials were critical and issued a number of resolutions clearly stating that they did not want field trials to be conducted in that area, this did not stop Monsanto and the national government from pursuing the trials. As a consequence, some of the local legislators filed a case in the local courts in 1999 to challenge the field trials. This did not lead anywhere since our legislative and legal systems are highly flawed. What happened was that Monsanto stalled the process by failing to appear at any of the hearings, which were conducted again and again, until time had lapsed and the field trials had been finished and it became moot and academic to discuss the case in court. It was indeed a mockery of the whole democratic process. 

There is so much conflict in terms of the interest of the national government and the local governments that despite the presence of a Local Government Code which allows a lot of autonomy to local government units, the national government managed to bend the local government to its will. 

Another field trial was carried out by Pioneer Hi-bred in 2001 in Polomolok, South Cotabato province, also in Mindanao. Here, the local government unanimously passed a resolution banning all field trials of GM crops within its territory only to find out that Pioneer Hi-bred planted Bt Corn five days after the resolution was passed. I was at the local hearing about this in January 2002, where Pioneer Hi-bred claimed that they did not receive a copy of this resolution. The company lawyer even denied the existence of an appeal letter for a reconsideration of the resolution made by the company manager to the city mayor two days after the resolution was passed. Just like Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-bred simply did not show up at the hearings and the field trial was completed before the hearings were concluded.

Trying the legal way to end field trials

Before the actual uprooting of Bt Corn on 29 August 2001, we tried all legal means possible to stop the field trials of GM crops in the Philippines. We have tried to bring these field trials cases to the attention of the Supreme Court in February 2000, but to no avail. Although the petition received a lot of media coverage, the Supreme Court came out in record time with a precedence-setting decision dismissing the case on technical grounds. Technical, meaning that these grounds had nothing to do with substance, but were argued to be due to factors such as poor photocopying quality, missing minutes of this and that meeting, etc. When we submitted a motion for consideration afterwards the Supreme Court told us we were prohibited from filing any further motions for reconsideration. This is very strange indeed and not something you can do in a democratic country. We afterwards found out that some of the justices and clerks in the Supreme Court used to work for large transnational legal firms, which serve clients like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-bred.  

These are frustrating cases. Yet although we may not have been able to win the big wars we have won a lot of battles along the way. These battles are very encouraging and inspiring and include the battle for public opinion, which is very crucial. A national survey paid for by Greenpeace-South East Asia and carried out by an independent national survey firm, shows that only 11% of the Philippine public is aware of the GMO debate. Of those 11%, about 95% want mandatory labelling. 85% say that they would not eat GMOs if they knew what it was they are eating.

The battle of the media has also been successful. The proponents of GMOs have been complaining that they are losing the media battle because we have received plenty of exposure for our cause. Finally, an important battle is being won in terms of the unity and the consolidation of the forces of civil society on the issue of genetic engineering. The Philippines might have a very mature civil society but it is also known to be very divided. Despite this, agreement has been found on the opposition to GMOs. I believe this unified opposition will be very important in terms of finally winning the whole war, something which we hope we can do in 10-20 years from now.

We have learnt the importance of networking within civil society and reaching out to other sectors. Collaboration between consumers and producers on the GMO issue is needed. We have to seize every opportunity to educate and reach out with our message. We have also learnt the importance of linking up with allies in the government and the academic world. One of the challenges today is to reach out to the academic world in the Philippines because they have so far taken a hard line position in favour of GMOs.

One of the main challenges facing the campaign right now is the Trojan Horse, which is Vitamin A rice. There has been a lot of talk about the promises of Vitamin A rice, most often around a very laughable rationale. The debate in the Philippines goes beyond the technical questions, on putting beta carotene in rice, but also involves the political and social rationale of the whole idea. It is ironic for us that the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which has been a main force behind the green revolution, is now the one pushing for vitamin A rice. The green revolution has, as we know, resulted in uniformity and erosion of genetic resources, which is one of the main reasons why there is so much vitamin A deficiency across South East Asia. Because of the uniformity and the conversion of all available land into rice and corn land, women have been deprived of land to plant vitamin A rich vegetables and fruit trees. The green revolution has also brought in many changes in the food preference of people. In the 1950s most Filipinos would eat brown rice which has all the vitamins in it.

Today, the main criterion for a good quality rice is white rice, which is robbed of vitamins and has resulted in widespread vitamin A deficiency.

The issues at stake as regards biopiracy are primarily the regulation of access to biological and genetic resources and indigenous knowledge. They are very much tied together with the issue of genetic engineering since both issues deal with the right to access and prior informed consent. The right of communities over resources is essentially what we are talking about as regards both GMOs and biopiracy. There is a clear focus on benefit-sharing when discussing and campaigning against biopiracy. A lot of the genetic resources have been siphoned off from countries in South East Asia and brought to technology-rich countries in Europe and North America while the finished products are brought back to poorer countries in the form of patented drugs and products.

Most technology transfers in genetic engineering and biopiracy are not really transfers but impositions of technologies which are not appropriate and which are defined by forces outside the country and the local community. It is common that the developers of certain technology, particularly modern technologies like genetic engineering, are the ones that impose these technologies on poorer countries. This is based on the premise that if such modern technology has paved the way for advances in industrialized countries, the same pattern can be expected in the developing countries that import these technologies. Often, that premise does not work since developing countries have particular situations, cultures and needs that greatly differ from industrialized countries. Often these modern technologies are not appropriate or adjusted to the needs of developing countries, which end up as raw material sources since they are biodiversity-rich. On the other hand, industrialized countries enjoy the monopoly of technological advancement and material resources although they may not have the natural endowments of biological and genetic diversity.

Developing countries and communities are generally guided by the principle of common heritage of mankind. However, the adoption of the Convention on Biodiversity in 1993 erased this principle, with the principle of national patrimony taking over the common heritage framework. In reality the principle of common heritage continues to govern the mindset of policymakers and particularly local farming and indigenous communities, something which makes it very difficulty to wage a campaign against biopiracy. Communities still believe that biological and genetic resources and even traditional knowledge, are part of the common heritage of mankind, which should be shared with everybody and anybody. Thus they see nothing wrong if foreign researchers study and collect our biological specimens and traditional knowledge, often without the consent of communities. This despite the fact that hundreds of biological and genetic materials obtained from local communities, as well as associated knowledge, have been brought to industrialized countries and commercially monopolized under the intellectual property rights (IPR) system. Of course it is quite striking that the common heritage framework is only prevailing in biodiversity-rich countries. Once the knowledge crosses borders into technology-rich countries corporate monopolies takes over. It is tragic that many people, even policy makers in developing countries, not to mention local communities, are not even aware of this trend.

Dozens of cases have been recorded where scientists take samples not just of  seeds, but also studying indigenous knowledge and collecting specimens from marine ecosystems and convert them into drugs which are sold back to the same communities in the form of drugs. A case in point in the Philippines is the development of potent pain killer from a conus snail. This research started with academic studies on conotoxin peptide done by Filipino scientists in the 70s, and later ended up in the hands of a US company which came out with a process to make a synthetic version of the peptide. The synthetic conotoxin peptide is now initially commercialized as SNX-111 or Zyconotide in the US. The Filipino scientists who started the research did not get any benefits from the commercialization nor was their permission obtained, and the same goes for the Filipino fishing communities where the conus snail samples were obtained.

Let it be made clear that we are not against research and development. What we are raising is the issue of access and prior informed consent. Communities should have a say in whether to allow this practice or not. With the Convention on Biodiversity as the international legal framework that states that biological and genetic resources are part of national patrimony, and at the same time recognizes the right of local and indigenous communities over these resources, the right of countries and communities to say no to biopiracy should be respected. Countries and companies in the industrialized North should respect this and should not use sophisticated legal mechanisms to get around the principle of national patrimony.

Our work in policy advocacy and lobbying over the past eight years has borne fruit, no matter how small, and has brought in a lot of challenges for us that will guide us in moving forward in the years to come. Our experiences have shown the dynamics of globalization and the strong impetus behind this phenomenon has radically changed the landscape in the development debate. No longer are we limited to the struggle for control over fixed resources as land alone, but the bone of contention now includes biological and genetic resources and traditional knowledge - which are often non-tangible and which we have taken for granted as part of the common heritage of mankind. The struggle now is no longer limited to fighting despotic and undemocratic governments, but international forces and transnational corporations that are accountable to no one. In many cases, we end up working with undemocratic governments as allies in international negotiations. Based on the lessons that we have gained over the years, the bottom line target is that civil society organizations should aim for is to involve communities - both in the industrialized North and the developing South -- in the development debates and struggles, and not just fight for them or on their behalf. The key to achieving this target is to raise community awareness on issues and pave the way for them to participate in decision making processes, beyond making their voices heard. In our experiences in policy advocacy and lobbying, the first challenge is how to overcome conventional dogmas in understanding underdevelopment and development processes.

Elenita “Neth” C. Dano is Executive Director of SEARICE, the Southeast Asia Regional Institute of Community Education.