UP Mindanao: Field testing of Bt eggplant is for farmers not for MNCs

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/24 December) – The University of the Philippines in Mindanao (UPMin) is field testing Bt eggplant “to see if it can be a viable alternative to our commercial, pesticide-ridden eggplants” and not because it is working for multinational corporations, UPMin said in a statement.

“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,” said the statement e-mailed to the media by the university’s public relations officer, Rene Estremera, afternoon of  December 22, five days after some 1,600 pieces of the genetically-modified eggplants planted on an experimental lot inside UP Mindanao campus in Bago Oshiro, Mintal, were uprooted on orders of City Hall.

The document titled “UP Mindanao’s Statement on the Bt Eggplant project,” did not bear any signatory, just “University of the Philippines Mindanao,” in all caps, at the bottom.

MindaNews sought Estremera morning of December 23 for the statement’s signatory. He told MindaNews their legal officer was sending a “revised statement” before noon but at 5 p.m., said in a text message that the revised version was put on hold “till after Christmas.”

The introduction to the statement Estremera e-mailed on December 22, said the “complete and formal title” of the project 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” and listed as Project Leader, Dr. Desiree M. Hautea from the Institute of Plant Breeding – Crop Science Cluster of UP Los Banos College of Agriculture and Dr. Eufemio Rasco of the College of Science and Mathematics in UPMin, as Co-Project Leader for UPMin.

In its statement, UPMin said the Bt eggplant technology is “a property of the University of the Philippines, a state university,” and is 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.”

Cease and Desist

The statement was issued by the university “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 ongoing experiment on Bt eggplant” in the UP Mindanao campus in Mintal and “to take advantage of the opportunity to further educate the public on Bt eggplant and its benefits.”

Field trials of the Bt eggplant are in progress across the country, although the UPMin field testing has been stopped by the city government on the grounds that it did not comply with the biosafety requirements set for genetically engineered crops.

City Hall has asked the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) to revoke the university’s permit to conduct the field testing of the genetically-modified eggplants in the city.

Mayor Sara Duterte said UPMin failed to notify the city about the conduct of the field tests, a crucial requirement in the Department of Agriculture Administrative Order 8 governing the conduct of the field trials.

The mayor issued a cease and desist order on December 13, warning UP Mindanao that the city government will uproot the eggplants. Duterte  had asked UP Mindanao to give her a received copy of the information they posted at City Hall.

‘Lapses in procedure’

City Hall claimed the university initially ignored the mayor’s order until OIC City Agriculturist Leonardo Avila phoned UPMin officials that he was on his way to uproot the eggplants when UPMin authorities said they wanted a five-day reprieve.

City Hall received a letter from Prof. Vicente Calag, UP Mindanao officer-in-charge, asking the city government for a five-day reprieve to file a motion for reconsideration on December 16, or three days after the mayor’s cease and desist order.

On December 17, Avila went to the field test site and waited until a team from UP Mindanao uprooted the eggplants.

Mayor Duterte said UP Min officials admitted “lapses in procedure” in a dialogue with the mayor last Friday. University officials had asked the city in a meeting which stretched up to two hours, to “leave the eggplants alone” while they start the consultation rounds.

“They wanted us to reverse the procedure,” Duterte said. “They wanted to start the consultations without uprooting the Bt Eggplants but I said no, it’s not the duty of the city government to answer the question.”

She said that right now all the questions about Bt Eggplant have been “directed at the city government when the city is not part of the project in the first place. They should have answered all these questions before they were issued the permit,” the mayor said.

The city sent their request for revocation to BPI Friday, as the City Agriculturist Office went to oversee the uprooting of the genetically-modified eggplants.

“Our contention was, there was one crucial provision that UP failed to comply with in the conduct of the field tests,” Duterte said. “They failed to post the public information sheet which was a notice to the city government that they’re going to conduct the field trials. The PIS will allow the city to refer it to the City Council, who will in turn, conduct committee hearings so that it will go through the full round of public consultations. It’s only until then that we can send BPI some feedback before the issuance of the permit,” she added.

‘Faithfully complying’

The UP Mindanao statement claimed it has been “faithfully complying with the conditions in its permit.”

It said the Progress Report prepared by Prof. Rasco, appended to its letter to Mayor Duterte,  “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,” he said.

On allegations that the field trial constitutes a challenge to the city’s policy to promote organic farming, the statement noted 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.”

It also said that they 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” and that before the experiment started, it also conducted “two seminars in August and September 2010 which were open to the general public.”

In October, Rasco declined to give details about the exact time and date of the actual planting of Bt eggplant within UP Mindanao’s main campus in Bago Oshiro.

“I am worried that because of the disinformation (about Bt eggplant), some sectors may be incited to destroy our experiment,” Rasco, a biotechnology expert who also authored the book “Unfolding the Green Revolution,” said.

“Because of so much disinformation about Bt eggplant, I am inclined not to reveal details about the date and time of the experiment until such a time that we have corrected the disinformation,” he said.

This is most unfair to our society, which has invested a lot of money to develop this technology. It is also unfair to the many Filipino researchers at UP Los Baños and other institutions, who have spent a lot of effort to develop this technology,” he added.

Environment groups opposed to the field tests demanded the public’s right to know about the date and time of the planting citing the alleged health and environment risks that the genetically-modified crop might bring.

Representatives from environment groups cheered as the UPMin team uprooted the eggplants last Friday.  (MindaNews)