By Charissa Luci-Atienza, December 30, 2019; Manila Bulletin

Image Credit to Manila Bulletin

AAMBIS-OWA Party-list Rep. Sharon Garin described on Monday the government’s approval of the biosafety permit for GR2E Golden Rice as “a victory for all Filipinos”, even as she called on House leadership to prioritize the passage of a bill seeking to eliminate the regulatory complications hampering the commercial release of biotechnology products.

The proponent of biofortification since the 17th Congress hailed the issuance of a biosafety permit to the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for GR2E Golden Rice.

“We are trying to dispel the notion that commercially-produced biofortified goods are potentially dangerous. This is a victory for science, agriculture, and all Filipinos,” Garin said in a statement.

“It is time that safe and responsible use of biotechnology be included in the Philippine toolkit to meet national development goals,” she added.

The House leader cited the significant contribution of biotechnology to agricultural development, after the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry (DA-BPI) affirmed the Golden Rice’s safety for direct use as food and feed, or for processing (FFP).

She said GR2E Golden Rice would help address the serious case of Vitamin A deficiency or “hidden hunger” among children and pregnant women.

Garin noted the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) recognizes agricultural biotechnology as a priority sector and has a direct impact on AmBisyon Natin 2040.

“Biotechnology will increase yields and better products, leading to more income for farmers, ” she maintained.
Citing the 2015 statistics, Garin said the average poverty incidence in the Philippines is about 21.6 percent and is highest among farmers at 34.4 percent.

She sought the passage of House Bill No. 3372 or the proposed Modern Biotechnology Act, that calls for the creation of the Biotechnology Authority of the Philippines (BioAP) to promote safe and responsible use of biotechnology in the country.

In her bill’s explanatory note, Garin said HB 3372 seeks “to expedite the regulatory decision-making process in biotechnology to help ensure the health and well-being of Filipinos, promote competitiveness, help reduce hunger and poverty, and help mitigate the effects of climate change.”

She sought the revision of the current regulatory regime to enable the Philippines to benefit from products of modern biotechnology without delay, believing that that it is still “based on outdated knowledge and assumptions.”

“Right now, it takes 65 months or more to complete all requirements for the commercial release of modern biotechnology products. The cumbersome regulations can no longer be justified for they effectively discriminate against local public biotech research institutions which have limited resources to comply with the existing regulations, ” Garin, chairman of the House Committee on Economic Affairs, said.

She said aside from increasing yields and better products that would lead to more income for country’s farmers, biotechnology will provide climate and weather resistant crops that will mitigate the effects of natural disasters.

“Since the 1980s, modern biotechnology has developed many useful products. These include insulin and corn that is resistant to borers and to a specific herbicide. These GMO corn plants have helped keep livestock and poultry affordable and improved the profitability of 406, 000 small resource poor Filipino farmers, ” Garin said.

HB 3372 tasks the BioAP to provide leadership in biotechnology industry development and rationalize the regulation of modern biotechnology. The proposed Biotechnology Authority shall also provide sustained funding for modern technology programs in agriculture, agroforestry, food processing, health, and manufacturing high value products for local and international markets.

The BioAP, under the bill, shall be attached to function as an agency of the DOST.

The bill calls for the abolition of the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) and other modern biotech regulatory bodies, but their functions shall be absorbed by the BioAP.

Sitting as members of the BioAP are the DOST Secretary or a designated Undersecretary, four members to be recommended by the National Academy of Science and Technology of the Philippines (NASTPhil), and two members to be recommended by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI).

The BioAP shall have a Secretariat headed by an Executive Director to be appointed by the President of the Philippines upon the recommendation of the DOST Secretary.

Garin said under her bill, the BioAP shall ensure that the government formulates and strictly implements science-based biosafety guidelines and regulations.

HB 3372 provides that the following acts shall be prohibited and penalized: unauthorized destruction of biotech crops, whether the crops are used for experimental objectives or for production; sale or distribution of fake genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds; and any other acts that are inimical to the safe and responsible use of modern biotechnology and are violative of the regulations set by the BioAP.

The bill provides that if violation is committed by an individual, he or she shall be penalized with two years of imprisonment and/or fine amounting to P500,000.

If the violator is an institution or organization, P10-million fine and/or suspension of privilege to operate within the Philippines shall be slapped.

Garin’s bill also provides that any donation, contribution, bequest, subsidy or financial aid to the BioAP or any Department, state university and college (SUC), or research center in support of modern biotechnology shall constitute allowable deductions from taxable income of the donor, and shall be exempt from donor’s tax.

An initial funding of P500 million shall be allotted for the operations of the BioAP and the needed appropriations for the full implementation of the proposed Act shall be included in the annual General Appropriations Act, the measure provides.

Within six months following the effectivity of the proposed Act, the DOST Secretary and the BioAP Executive Director shall activate the BioAP and it is expected that within three months, the BioAP members promulgate the implementing rules and regulations of the proposed Act.