A legal challenge to the Philippines' rules on genetically modified organisms is threatening to spark a food crisis in the country and could cloud the outlook for GM technology around Asia.
Government agencies are scrambling to set new regulations on GMOs by Feb. 23 after the Southeast Asian nation's top court late last year demanded an overhaul of existing rules, halting GM planting and issuance of new GM import permits until that was done.
The Supreme Court was acting on a petition by environmental activists led by Greenpeace, with the move likely to be closely watched by governments elsewhere as the Philippines is seen as a trailblazer for GMO.
The country was the first in the region to allow planting and commercialization of GM corn, which it did in 2002, and has permitted GM crop imports for more than a decade.
"Our framework has served as a model for GMO regulatory policy to other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and even some Latin American countries," said Merle Palacpac, chief of the plant quarantine service at the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).
"We have the first functioning regulatory framework in Asia. So I am sure whatever happens here, they are closely watching."
With some current import permits starting to expire from March and corn farmers set to begin sowing in May, five government agencies are pushing to sign new rules by next Tuesday to avoid disrupting food supply in a year when voters will choose the country's next leader.
"We need (new rules) to be in place as soon as possible. Otherwise there will be chaos," Palacpac added.
Global agribusiness giants Monsanto Co and Syngenta AG are major suppliers of transgenic seeds to the Philippines. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The government said the new rules are expected to tighten environmental scrutiny before biosafety permits are issued, addressing one of the loopholes the Supreme Court cited when it voided the old rules, in place since 2002.
They will also require more documentation from suppliers of GM products, according to an importer who participated in past public hearings on the issue.
GMO's critics argue the technology poses risks to public health, while advocates say such fears have not been scientifically proven and that high-yielding genetically altered crops would help ensure food security as the world's population grows.
Around 70 percent of the Philippines' corn output, which stood at 7.5 million tonnes last year, is GM. The country's top GM import is soybean meal. Both are mainly used as animal feed and any supply disruption could spell disaster for the livestock sector.
The Supreme Court's December ruling is "anti-nationalistic when you look at it from the perspective of the country's food security", said Roger Navarro, president of Philippine Maize Federation.
Corn farmers are worried they might not be able to plant in May.
"The livelihood of almost 1 million farmers nationwide will be threatened," said Romualdo Elvira Jr., a farmer from the northern province of Bicol.
Using non-GM seeds, a hectare yields around 3 tonnes of corn, said Oliver Aldovino, part of a farmer cooperative on the southern island of Mindanao. Aldovino, who switched to GM seven years ago, said output doubled with GM corn.
But environmental activists say that after years of allowing GMO cultivation and imports, it is time the country took a step back.
"Since the Philippines began cultivating and commercializing GM corn, there hasn't been a single review by the government in terms of the effect on the environment and farmers," said Greenpeace campaigner Leonora Lava. "Our call now is for an impact assessment."
Lava, who also opposes GMO imports, questioned the speedy way in which the new rules are being drafted. The government launched public consultations on the regulations on Jan. 22, with another public hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
"The concern here is a regulation of national significance. Why the haste?" she said.
Greenpeace is yet to decide whether it will launch a fresh legal battle when the new GMO rules are introduced, said Lava.