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Experts urge public to take part in science-based discussions on agri-biotech products safety

Gene editing is just one technology that can be used to improve farm productivity and mitigate the effects of climate change, says Dr. Carl Ramage, Managing Director of Rautaki Solutions, Inc. and Chair of the Institutional Biosafety Committee of La Trobe University, Australia, in a virtual forum held last September 8.

The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) teamed up with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service, United States Embassy Manila, and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) in holding a webinar titled “SOLVE Public Info-sufficiency on Genome-edited Crops” where Dr. Ramage and Dr. Saturnina Halos, President of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines presented the global and local perspectives on genome editing technologies and biosafety regulations, respectively.

Held via the SEARCA Online Learning and Virtual Engagement (SOLVE) earlier this month, the webinar is part of SEARCA’s Biotech Outreach Program, which provides a venue for knowledge sharing and learning with different stakeholders and contribute to improved understanding and acceptance of biotechnology in the country, with focus on genome editing technologies in crops.

Dr. Ramage shared several examples of genome editing regulatory approaches implemented in countries such as Argentina and the United States. He also said the commercialization of gene-edited products depends on a clear pathway to market; an effective value capture model; and clear and harmonized regulatory requirements.

“We should not fear new technology. We should keep asking scientists and the government questions to ensure that we maintain the safety of the food that we eat and produce,” Dr. Ramage said. “Be part of the discussion, take an open mind, listen, and contribute,” he urged.

Meanwhile, Dr. Halos talked about the opportunities and constraints of genome editing in the Philippines. She said the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCPB) has ruled that gene-edited crops will not be regulated under the existing guidelines covering genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Dr. Halos clarified that the current Philippine regulation on modern biotechnology, which is based on the Cartegena Protocol, is specific only to GMOs. Dr. Halos also said there is government support for molecular breeding using gene editing led by the Department of Agriculture.

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“We should not stop exploring new methods of improving agriculture because we are in a different situation today than we are a hundred years ago. For instance, climate change is affecting everything,” Dr. Halos said.

She also concurred with Dr. Ramage and affirmed that “we should be open to new technologies that could help us. We must be aware that these products can cause damage, thus, there are regulations put in place. We’ve had GMOs for more than 20 years and because of the science-based biosafety regulations, they have been proven to be safe for humans and the environment.”

SEARCA Director Dr. Glenn B. Gregorio, emphasized the importance of gene-editing applications for crops and the need for regulatory frameworks that are science- and evidence-based.

A professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) as well as plant breeder and geneticist, Dr. Gregorio also underlined the significance of spreading the word about the benefits of these technologies.

“We can clearly see and appreciate how modern biotechnology as an agricultural innovation accelerates transformation. We are in the age where crop breeding innovations and gene-edited products are highly relevant now more than ever,” he said.

For almost five years, the USDA together with SEARCA, ISAAA, and its strong network of partners have been leading and organizing the annual Biotech Outreach Program. This year’s webinar was attended by more than a hundred participants via Zoom with more than 1,400 views on Facebook. While majority of the attendees came from the Philippines, participants from Myanmar, Japan, Timor-Leste, and Indonesia also joined the discussions.

SEARCA