UP Mindanao bows to City Hall; uproots Bt eggplants

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/17 December) — Amid loud cheers from organic farmers and people opposed to Bt eggplant, UP Mindanao complied late afternoon Friday with Mayor Sara Duterte’s order to have  the genetically-modified crop uprooted from the field test site near the entrance to the campus for reportedly failing to conduct consultations with the city and barangay governments, a requirement for the conduct of field tests for genetically modified crops.

The uprooting of the controversial plants, which had grown to about one foot as of Friday, came after more than two hours of waiting, when Mayor Sara Duterte turned down UP Mindanao’s request for a five-day reprieve of the cease and desist order issued by City Hall on Monday

“The mayor wants them (UP Mindanao) to start all over again, go through the right procedure in close consultation with city officials,” City Agriculture Office chief Leo Avila said. “They have to stop first and go back to zero because it seems that we mean different things when we say ‘strictly confined field trial’.”

Bt eggplant field test site inside the UP Mindanao-Mintal campus. Mindanews Photo by Keith Bacongco

He said that the cyclone fence erected around the experiment site is not “confined” enough in as far as the city officials are concerned.

The December 13 order warned UP Mindanao the city government will uproot the eggplants. UP Mindanao merely ignored the order.  It was only when City Agriculturist Leonardo Avila called UP authorities by phone that he was on his way to uproot the eggplants that the school said they wanted a five-day reprieve.

The mayor had asked UP Mindanao to give her a received copy of the information they posted at City Hall.

UP Mindanao officials made a last-ditch attempt to dialog with the mayor at 1 pm on Friday, which explained the delay in the uprooting scheduled at 3pm.

City Hall only 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.

Avila, who had arrived at the site by 3 pm to oversee the uprooting, received a letter from Duterte, telling him to “wait for the UP officials who wanted to witness the disposal.”  Only one official arrived after over an hour of waiting, only to tell him they could not proceed with the uprooting without the presence of the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).

Avila said UP Mindanao repeatedly ignored the mayor’s letters telling them she will allow field testing in the city only “under strictly confined” environment.  But instead of consulting the mayor UP Mindanao pushed through with the experiment.

“We should have talked it out,” Avila said, adding, “The groups opposing genetically-modified eggplants talked with us but they (UP Mindanao) did not.”

Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis is a soil bacterium injected into the genes of plants, such as eggplants, to protect them from fruit and shoot borer worms.

Environment groups have widely criticized the Bt eggplant field test for reportedly failing to go through a full complement of risk assessment tests to ensure that the scientific breakthrough is safe.

Go Organic Mindanao earlier expressed fears that the field tests, conducted in open air and protected only by cyclone wire, might contaminate the homegrown eggplant varieties through insect pollinators. But Dr. Eufemio Rasco, a professor at UP Mindanao, said they have erected both physical and biological traps.

“There are two types of confinement to ensure that both the seeds and the pollen will not be taken out,” Rasco, described as one of Mindanao’s most senior scientists, said.

“The physical confinement will prevent people and animals from bringing away the viable materials (the pollens and seeds) out of the site, that’s why we erected fences (made of cyclone wire). But for insects (which might cross pollinate the Bt Eggplant with the local varieties), we erected biological traps, by surrounding the transplanted rows of Bt Eggplants with five rows of non-Bt Eggplants,” research professor Desiree Hautea of UP Los Baños explained in the same forum.

Mario Navasero, an entomologist at UPLB, vouched for the safety of the field trials by citing previous experiments in other parts of the country that purportedly showed no signs of harm to insects other than the eggplant fruit and shoot borer worm, the prime target of Bt.

“The results from Confined Field Tests in Pangasinan, Bicol and Laguna have shown that there is no difference in the occurrence of arthropods between the Bt and the non-Bt eggplant plots,” a statement from UP Mindanao quoted Navasero as having said.

Avila, a former councilor who authored the city ordinance promoting organic agriculture, said it was too late for UP Mindanao officials to ask for a reprieve after they ignored the previous letters of the mayor and even pushed through with the testing in defiance of the city’s stand opposing Bt eggplant.

“If there was something that we did not know, they should have come to us and explained,” he said.  ”Instead, they waited up to the last minute.”

Duterte wanted the trial stopped and to start all over again, this time in full consultation with city and barangay officials.

“They (UP Mindanao) need to go back to zero and follow the right procedure this time,” Avila said.

He said that the mayor was particularly angered by what Rasco said during the forum on December 9 in UP Mindanao. Rasco claimed that the mayor already agreed to the experiment because they had a “strictly confined” environment.

He said that UP Mindanao pushed through with the field test despite the mayor’s earlier letters telling them that the city government would only allow field testing of Bt eggplant under a “strictly-confined environment.”

Tempers ran high near the test site as organic farmers and anti-GMO nongovernment organizations ran into a heated argument with UP Mindanao researchers and Navasero over the Bt eggplant.

Even the placards found at the site bore opposing messages.  ”Bt Talong ni Rasco, Hautea, Ibasura,” read the streamer carried by a farmer.  ”We support the city for upholding the organic agriculture ordinance,” said the streamer of Go Organic Mindanao and “Rasco, i-respeto ang cease and desist order ni mayor,” and “Mabuhay Sara for upholding organic agriculture.”

Posted on the fence around the experiment site, however, were red placards which read “Avila, respect UP property” and “respect academic freedom and respect the rule of law.”

The latter drew reactions from farmers, who said “academic freedom should always be coupled with social responsibility.”

Navasero walked away when his attempt to explain the experiment was drowned by the chants of anti-Bt eggplant protesters.  (Germelina Lacorte/MindaNews)