UP Min says Bt eggplant field test followed biosafety rules

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/29 December) — The University of the Philippines in Mindanao insisted it has not violated any biosafety requirement in pushing through with the field testing of Bt eggplant in an experimental lot within the UP Mindanao campus.

Prof. Nilo B. Oponda, UP Mindanao chancellor officer-in-charge, admitted though that the school failed to post the public information sheet at City Hall, one of the requirements specified by Department of Agriculture (DA) Administrative Order Number 8 governing the field tests of genetically-modified crops like the Bt eggplant.

”UP Mindanao has not violated any requirements that would impact on biosafety and public health,” read Oponda’s December 28 letter sent to media outlets 11 days after the experimental crops were uprooted on orders of City Hall.

”The cease and desist order is not based on violation of any of these concerns but only on an administrative lapse, i.e., the lack of posting of the Public Information Sheet (PIS), which the city mayor admits,” he said.

He said the failure to post the notice was not a lapse by UP Mindanao but by the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), an independent body whose members were appointed by the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).

Oponda also said that UP Mindanao had proposed to hold various forums to serve as both notice and opportunity to educate the public but that the mayor declined.

”We note that the holding of fora would have been more than sufficient and would have constituted substantial compliance with the requirements of Administrative Order No. 8 of the Department of Agriculture which only required posting of the PIS,” Oponda’s letter said.

In an earlier interview, Mayor Sara Duterte however said UP Mindanao had only proposed holding the public forums after they already planted the Bt eggplant, ignoring the requirement under AO No. 8 to hold public consultations before any field test may take place.

Duterte said she declined because such public consultations would already be too late, taking place only after the controversial eggplants were already planted. She said UP Mindanao should have done it before they pushed through with the experiment.

”It was not the duty of the city government to answer the public’s questions about the Bt eggplant,” the mayor said.

Oponda also pointed out in his letter that the field test at UP Mindanao was not open but a ”confined” one.

He said UP Los Banos was granted Biosafety Permit for Field Testing No. 10-01 1e by the Bureau of Plant Industry on 28 June 2010.

”The field testing was confined,” Oponda said. ”All the conditions imposed by the regulatory agencies of government, which show that the testing was confined field testing, were strictly followed by the project team.”

He assured the field test posed no danger to public health and that cross-pollination with native varieties is not likely to happen.

”An understanding of the nature of the crop would have put such fears to rest,” he said.

”The eggplant is a highly self-pollinated crop. The biology of the species makes sure that it is so. The possibility of insects pollinating eggplants outside the testing area is further diminished by the pollen trap plants around the Bt talong plants.”

He explained that pollen traps do not refer to ”physical objects that enclose the testing area” but to ”living plants that attract insects.  By attracting the insects, these plants trap the pollen that the insects may bring with them, ensuring that no pollen escapes the testing site,” he said.

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

He also said that the genetically-modified eggplant criticized by anti-GMO groups for failing to undergo a complete risk assessment tests, does not pose any danger to public health.

”This much the mayor has admitted in view of UP Mindanao’s compliance with the requirements of the experiment,” he said.  ”Moreover, the eggplant does not use or incorporate any organism or substance that is harmful to man.”

He also said the claim that UP Mindanao is ”beholden to private interests is the most hurtful of all.”

”The experiment was part of legitimate research work that is expected of the University of the Philippines. To have it tagged as part of the agenda of supposed vested interests is extremely myopic and ignorant.”

The City Agriculturist Office had supervised the uprooting of the Bt eggplant on December 17, or five days after the city mayor issued a cease and desist order to UP Mindanao for failing to consult with local officials in pushing through with the field test.

”After the uprooting, much was said and published about the experiment, primarily by those opposed to genetically-modified organisms,” said Oponda.

He said most of the claims against Bt eggplant were ”derogatory to and defamatory of UP Mindanao, especially in relation to biosafety and public health issues.” (Germelina Lacorte/MindaNews)