UP Mindanao's Statement on the Bt Eggplant project

(e-mailed afternoon of December 22 by Rene Estremera, UP Min’s public relations officer)

This statement is issued by UP Mindanao to present its side on the December 17 and 18, 2010 incident wherein the Officer in Charge of the City Agriculturist Office of Davao City implemented the Cease and Desist Order of the City Mayor on the on-going experiment on Bt eggplant in the University of the Philippines Mindanao (UP Mindanao) campus in Barangay Mintal, Davao City, and to take advantage of the opportunity to further educate the public on Bt eggplant and its benefits.

The complete and formal title of the project in UP Mindanao is:

“Assessment of Yield Performance, Bioefficacy, and Effects on Non-Target Organisms of Promising UPLB FSB-Resistant Transgenic Open-Pollinated Lines with MAHYCO Eggplant Event, Ee-1 for Variety Accreditation and Biosafety Approval”

The following are the people and entities involved in the project:

Implementing Organizations:
UPLB Foundation, Inc. for UP Los Baños
UP Mindanao Foundation, Inc. for UP Mindanao

Regulatory Agency:
Bureau of Plant Industry – Biotech Core Team and Plant Quarantine Service

Project Leader:
Desiree M. Hautea, Ph.D.
Institute of Plant Breeding – Crop Science Cluster
College of Agriculture, UP Los Baños

Co-Project Leader for UPMin:
Eufemio T. Rasco, Jr., Ph.D.
College of Science and Mathematics, UP Mindanao

Background of the Project:

The project arose from the need to address a common problem among eggplant farmers in the Philippines.  Eggplant is one of the more important, inexpensive and popular vegetables in the country.  Eggplant farming can be very profitable especially for the small farmers.  However, it has been shown that the average yield of eggplant per hectare in the Philippines is 5-6 tons lower than the average for Asia.  This low yield can be attributed to high infestations of the most destructive pest of eggplant, the Fruit and Shoot Borer or FSB, a worm-like pest.  Infestation starts soon after transplanting and continues up to harvesting, resulting in up to 70% total yield loss per cropping season in commercial-scale farms.  Existing eggplant varieties have no effective resistance to Eggplant Fruit and Shoot Borer.  It is an impractical remedy to remove the damaged shoots and fruits.  Instead, the farmers have resorted to frequent (20-72 times per season) and heavy spraying of insecticides to control the infestation.

Bioengineered eggplant presents a potential remedy for the chronic problem of Fruit and Shoot Borer infestation and high pesticide use.  The use of crystal protein genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to engineer resistance to biting and chewing insects has been one of the best success stories of bioengineered crops.  A famous example would be Bt Corn, which also initially met resistance but is now accepted by the agriculture industry.  To make the eggplant resistant to pest, Bt genes are incorporated into the plant genome to produce the protein that is toxic to the target pests.

Introduction to the Philippines:

UP Los Baños is responsible for the development of the Bt eggplant technology in the Philippines.  Testing was done at the UPLB greenhouse facilities (2006-2008), and confined trial sites at the experimental farm of UPLB’s Institute of Plant Breeding (2007-2008).  The test results show that Bt eggplant can effectively control the local Eggplant Fruit and Shoot Borer without adversely affecting non-target organisms, such as non-harmful insects and mites that inhabit eggplant farms.  The Bt eggplant varieties were shown to be substantially equivalent to traditional non-Bt eggplant.  The Eggplant Fruit and Shoot Borer-resistant characteristic of Bt eggplant was also found to be stably inherited across succeeding generations of Bt eggplant.  Because of these findings, the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) issued a Certificate of Completion and endorsed the project to the next stage of assessment, i.e. field testing, under the Department of Agriculture’s Administrative Order No. 8, Series of 2002, also known as “Rules and Regulations for the Importation and Release into the Environment of Plants and Plant Products Derived from the Use of Modern Biotechnology”, also referred to, in short, by the acronym “AO 8”.

Field Testing in UP Mindanao

On September 29, 2009, UPLB, represented by UPLB Chancellor Luis Rey Velasco and project leader UPLB Professor Dr. Desiree Hautea applied for a permit with the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) for field testing of Bt Talong in UP Mindanao. Note that field testing is under the jurisdiction of the BPI, and not the NCBP.  NCPB regulates contained use of regulated articles, like what UPLB did in its greenhouses and experimental farm.

As stipulated by AO 8, an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) was constituted to “be responsible for the initial evaluation of the risk-assessment and risk management strategies of the applicant for field testing. It shall be composed of at least five members, three of whom shall be designated as “scientist-members” who shall possess scientific and technological knowledge and expertise sufficient to enable them to evaluate and monitor properly any work of the applicant relating to the field testing of a regulated article. The other members, who shall be designated as ‘community representatives’, shall not be affiliated with the applicant.. and shall be in a position to represent the interests of the communities where the field testing is to be conducted. For avoidance of doubt, the NCBP shall be responsible for approving the membership of the IBC.” The IBC for this project is composed of Prof. Annabelle U. Novero (UP Mindanao) as Chair, with Prof. Prof. Virginia P. Obsioma (UP Mindanao), Reine Kathryn Taya-Rala (UP Mindanao) and Mr. Jose Amor R. Yabes (Brgy. Bago Oshiro, Davao City) as members, and Prof. Erwin E. Protacio (Brgy. Catalunan Grande, Davao City/UP Mindanao) and Bgy. Captain Ramon M. Bargamento II (Brgy. Mintal, Davao City) as community representatives. The application to approve the field testing of Bt Talong was favorably endorsed by all the members of the Institutional Biosafety Committee, as seen in the application form, in September 29, 2009.

A Biosafety Permit for Field Testing No. 10-01 1e was issued by the Bureau of Plant Industry on 28 June 2010 that states, “the Bureau of Plant Industry has approved the conduct of the proposed activity in UP Mindanao Experimental Plot, Bago Oshiro, Davao City to the following conditions:

a. the proponent shall submit to the BPI the duly accomplished Oath of Undertaking before commencing with the field trials.
b. the proponent shall submit to the BPI and inform the designated monitors of the detailed schedule of planting, planting plan and monitoring activities, assessment of damage and all kinds, rates and schedule of pesticides applied.
c. the proponent shall adhere as closely as possible to the  planting schedules for these sites. Modification in the planting schedule and other activities should be made only with the concurrence of the BPI.
d. the proponent shall strictly observe the 200 meter physical or temporal isolation from all eggplant fields outside the enclosed experimental area at all times; should strictly implement regular monitoring/inspection of the surrounding 200-meter radius isolation.
e. the proponent shall ensure that the whole field trial area be provided with pollen trap plants.
f. the proponent shall ensure that no wild relatives (of eggplant) are present within the isolation distance throughout the duration of the experiments.
g. the proponent shall ensure the security of the experiment, the field workers and the monitors.
h. the proponent shall gather all relevant data for the test.
i. the proponent shall provide a detection kit for Bt eggplant.
j. the proponent shall ensure that the workers and monitors have access to health facilities as the need arises.
k. the proponent shall ensure that only authorized persons are allowed inside the trial sites.
l. the proponent shall ensure that stray animals are excluded from the trial sites while tests are being conducted.
m. to preclude escape, the proponent shall manage the number of possible volunteers by removing fruits before they ripen, fruits that will be retained for seeds shall be bagged.
n. at the end of the season, the transformed and untransformed counterparts shall be collected and plowed under or buried at a designated spot on the sites.
o. the proponent shall ensure that the site will not be used for a minimum of 60 days after the completion of the field trial.
p. after termination of the experiments, the site must be left undisturbed, volunteer plants must be monitored, and plowing will be done after 10 days to allow other volunteers to germinate.
q.  the proponent may reuse the area for the second season field trial planting only if no volunteer plants are observed for two consecutive weeks.
r. the proponent shall strictly adhere to the provisions on Section 5 of the Planned Release Guidelines for GMO and PHES of the NCBP and the trial is subject to any other conditions that may be required during the experiment.”

All the conditions imposed by the regulatory agencies of government are being strictly followed.  More importantly, these conditions show that the experiment is a confined field testing of the Bt Talong, and not open field testing.  Perhaps some of the negative publicity stemmed from a lack of understanding of what constitutes confined field testing.  Someone who is not learned in plant breeding will probably find the cyclone fence that surrounds the experiment area as insufficient.  There is speculation that the cyclone fence will not prevent cross pollination to native eggplants or to other organisms.  Those speculations simply have no basis because:

1.         The eggplant is a highly self-pollinated crop. The biology of the species makes sure that it is so.

2.         The possibility of insects pollinating eggplants outside the testing area is further diminished by the pollen trap plants around the Bt talong plants.  Pollen traps do not refer to physical objects that enclose the testing area that will ensure no pollen gets out of the testing site.  Pollen traps, as set out in the permit, are living plants that attract insects.  By attracting the insects, these plants trap the pollen that the insects may be bringing with them.

3.         Moreover, the 200-meter isolation distance is more than enough to prevent cross pollination.

Prior to starting the experiment, representatives from UP Mindanao, UPLB, the barangays went around the vicinity to inform the farmers who have planted eggplants within the 200-meter isolation distance about the experiment.  The group found 5 farmers and they readily agreed to remove their crops for which they signed agreements duly witnessed by the barangay officials.  Mr. Gerardo A. Santos, a resident of Brgy. Mintal and one of those who witnessed this action by UP Mindanao confirmed this in his letter to Councilor Conrado Baluran and to our City Agriculturist, Mr. Leo Avila III.   This letter of Mr. Santos clarifying all the issues against the experiment came as a pleasant surprise.  It was unsolicited and was an objective assessment of the ongoing experiment.

In UP Mindanao’s meeting with Mr. Avila, the latter pointed out that India’s Minister of Environment and Forests already issued his decision against the commercialization of the Bt eggplant. His decision was to put a moratorium on the commercialization of the Bt eggplant.  However, he did not order a moratorium on any research on Bt eggplant.  In fact, he encouraged more experiments to be conducted to validate the initial findings on its commercial viability, sustainability, and safety.  The moratorium on commercialization does not mean that India’s Minister of Environment is finally saying no.  The decision only means that the commercialization is suspended pending results of more research on Bt eggplant.

At any rate, what UP Mindanao is doing right now is just the field testing of the Bt eggplant to see if it can be a viable alternative to our commercial, pesticide-ridden eggplants.  All those talk about UP working for giant multinationals with vested interest in monopolizing the eggplant seed industry are untrue and constitute black propaganda against a legitimate research program that only aims to offer our Filipino farmers a more cost-effective option to cultivate eggplants. The Bt eggplant technology is a property of the University of the Philippines, a state university.  A product of 10 years of work, designed to reduce the risk to life and environment caused by the widespread use of highly toxic chemical pesticides in eggplant farming.

UP Mindanao has been faithfully complying with the conditions in its permit. The Progress Report prepared by Prof. Rasco, that was appended to our letter to the City Mayor,  explains in detail how we have been meticulously following the BPI’s conditions to the letter.  We also updated our City Agriculturist since August 2010 to keep him informed about the project.   More importantly, we have not done anything that goes against the wishes of our local government officials.  We are not doing open field testing.  All the documents appended to our letter to the City Mayor prove that our experiment is confined, and highly regulated.

Regarding allegations that our on-going field trial constitutes a challenge to the policy of the city to promote organic farming, we point out that co-existence between organic farming and other technologies, such as the use of Bt eggplant, is possible with proven practices such as temporal and spatial isolation. It is necessary because the majority of farmers are conventional farmers, who also need to make a living, like organic farmers. Many countries produce both organic and genetically modified crops such as eggplant.

As further required by AO 8, the IBC of UP Mindanao posted copies of the Public Information Sheet about the proposed Bt Talong experiment in the bulletin boards of Bago Oshiro, Mintal, and UP Mindanao as early as May 2010. Before the experiment started, UP Mindanao also conducted two seminars in August and September 2010 which were open to the general public. Barangay officials of Mintal and Bago Oshiro were invited to the forum.  The researchers and regulators involved in the experiment were likewise present to explain the project.

UP Mindanao, through Prof. Eufemio Rasco, Jr., also participated in the consultation organized by the Davao City Agriculturist Office at Ateneo de Davao University on 30 September 2010.  Prof. Rasco gave a one-and-a-half hour talk regarding the experiment.

Just recently, on 9 December 2010, UP Mindanao had another forum regarding the Bt talong.  Present to discuss it were Prof. Rasco, Dr. Randy A. Hautea, the Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), and Ms. Merle Palacpac of the Bureau of Plant Industry.  Invitations were sent out to the Office of the City Mayor, the City Council, the City Agriculturist Office, and Barangays Bago Oshiro and Mintal.  The forum was open to the general public.  In fact, it was a well-attended event which perhaps mirrored the high level of interest in the project.  Farmers, mediamen, and non-government organizations were likewise represented at the forum.  A visit to the experiment site (just outside the perimeter) and briefing was also done after the forum.

It is not true, therefore, that UP Mindanao has been remiss in educating the public about the experiment.  Despite budgetary constraints, we were able to do an information drive.

We sincerely hope that this statement will help our local government officials understand the project and appreciate the efforts of UP Mindanao in trying to help our local farmers through this important research.  We affirm our commitment to the interest of the country and deny any allegations that we are beholden to private interests.