By Manolo Serapio Jr and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines has approved a new set of rules on genetically modified organisms after a top court demanded an overhaul of previous regulations, providing relief to farmers and importers worried that any delay would spark a food crisis.
The five ministers that needed to sign the rules had done so as of Monday, Merle Palacpac, chief of the plant quarantine service at the Bureau of Plant Industry, told Reuters.
The new rules will now be forwarded to the Department of Agriculture, with Palacpac saying they would likely take effect by April.
The Supreme Court in December halted the issuance of fresh permits for planting or importing genetically modified crops until the new rules were in place, putting in limbo nearly 1 million corn farmers and buyers of GM soybean meal, the Philippines' top GMO import.
The court was acting on a petition by environmental activists led by Greenpeace, with the move likely closely watched by governments elsewhere as the Philippines is seen as a trailblazer for GMO.
Greenpeace on Monday said it would take further action against the new GMO guidelines.
"Definitely there will be action but we haven't decided (what it will be) yet," said Greenpeace campaigner Leonora Lava, adding that it would discuss options with other petitioners and allied groups.
The new rules are expected to improve transparency in the approval process for permits to plant, import and commercialize GM products, including enhanced regulations on risk assessment and involvement of local governments, said Palacpac.
"The technical working group made sure that these concerns by the Supreme Court have been addressed," she said.
The government had aimed to have the regulations signed by the five ministers on Feb. 24, but that was delayed as some officials were traveling.
While importers of soymeal welcomed the new regulations, they were concerned it could now take longer to get permission to ship in GM crops.
Under the old rules, feed millers were only required to get sanitary and phytosanitary import clearance for soybean meal that they shipped in, said an industry source. But it is unclear whether they now will also have to get a separate biosafety permit, the source added.
The Philippines was the first in Asia to approve commercial cultivation of a GM crop for animal feed and food in 2002 when it allowed GM corn planting. It has also allowed GM crop imports for more than a decade. Around 70 percent of its corn output is GM.
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.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Erik dela Cruz; Editing by Joseph Radford)