By Charissa Luci-Atienza
Instead of creating another agency that would rationalize the regulation of modern biotechnology in the country, Congress should consider allocating more funds to strengthen the country’s existing biotechnology center to ensure food security in the country.
Quezon Rep. Mark Enverga made the proposal as Bohol Rep. Erico Aristotle Aumentado, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, endorsed the creation of the the Biotechnology Authority of the Philippines (BioAP) to promote the safe and responsible use of biotechnology in the country.
“Biotechnology as a means to ensure food security in the country through improved technologies, increase productivity, and enhance the commercial value of our priority crops such as rice, abaca, coconut, white and yellow corn, etc. is encouraging. But, I think support to our existing Biotech Center on Research Advancement is still of importance instead of creating an agency designed more on regulation,” Enverga, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture and Food, said.
“Perhaps, funding is still needed to advance further the technologies suited to our country vis a vis our need for varieties of crops resistant to pests, diseases, and effect of climate change,” he pointed out.
He noted that for 2019, the total research and development (R&D) budget on biotechnology amounted to P1.1 billion.
“Biotech R&D is part of DOST- Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development or PCAARD with total R&D budget of P1.1 B for 2019 (2019 NEP),” Enverga said.
He also noted that the Department of Agriculture (DA) has Biotechnology Program Office (DA-BPO) for biotechnology promotion under the Office of the Secretary.
“Also, the Philippine Rice Institute has Plant Breeding and Biotechnology Division in charge in the development, improvement and utilization of high yielding, pest and abiotic stress resistant and good grain quality rice varieties suitable to major rice growing ecosystems,” Enverga said.
Under House Bill No. 3372 or the proposed Modern Biotechnology Act, AAMBIS-Owa partylist Rep. Sharon Garin sought the establishment of the BioAP to provide leadership in biotechnology industry development and rationalize the regulation of modern biotechnology.
She said her bill 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.”
Garin, chairman of the House Committee on Economic Affairs, stressed that for the Philippines to benefit from products of modern biotechnology without delay, the current regulatory regime, which is still “based on outdated knowledge and assumptions,” should be revised.
She explained that currently, it takes 65 months or more to complete all requirements for the commercial release of modern biotechnology products.
House Bill 3372 tasks the proposed Biotechnology Authority to provide sustained funding for modern technology programs in agriculture, agro-forestry, 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.
Garin’s 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 that under her bill, the BioAP shall ensure that the government formulates and strictly implements science-based bio-safety 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 shall promulgate the implementing rules and regulations of the proposed Act.