Statement on the Bt Eggplant Experiment

Written by Rene Estremera. Posted in Madayaw News

UPDATE: This statement was released to the media on 28 December 2010. We are posting this statement for the constituents of UP Mindanao.

STATEMENT FROM U.P. MINDANAO REGARDING Bt EGGPLANT

I write on behalf of the University of the Philippines Mindanao in relation to the events of December 17, 2010 when officials of the Davao City Agriculturist’s Office implemented a Cease and Desist Order and uprooted crops which formed part of an experiment involving Bt Talong jointly undertaken by UP Mindanao and UP Los Banos. 

After the uprooting,  much was said and published about the experiment, primarily  by those opposed to genetically-modified organisms, and most of it derogatory to and defamatory of UP Mindanao, especially in relation to biosafety and public health issues. We have kept our peace simply because we know that the claims made against us are untrue and we are confident that, in the end,  our detractors will be proven wrong. 

However, in the interest of fairness and truth, allow us to  briefly state that:
1.  UP Mindanao has not violated any requirements that would impact on biosafety and public health.  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).  This, the Honorable City Mayor admits. 
2.  The lack of posting was not attributable to UP Mindanao but to the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), an independent body whose members are appointed by the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).  UP Mindanao, consistent with its primary nature as an academic institution, proposed to hold various fora to serve as both notice and opportunity to educate; this, however, 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.
3.  UP Mindanao was doing confined field testing and not open field testing. UPLB 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.  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. 
4.  There was no danger of cross-pollination.  An understanding of the nature of the crop would have put  such fears to rest.   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.  Pollen traps do not refer to physical objects that enclose the testing area that will ensure no pollen  escapes 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  bring with them. Moreover, the 200 meter isolation distance is more than enough to prevent cross pollination.

5.  There is no danger to public health. This much the Mayor has admitted in view of UP Mindanao's compliance with the requirements of the experiment.  Moreover, the eggplant does not use or incorporate any organism or substance that is harmful to man.  This much, UP Mindanao has taken great pains to ensure.

Finally, 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, the national university. To have it tagged as part of the agenda of supposed vested interests is extremely myopic and ignorant.

Prof. Nilo B. Oponda, Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
OIC, Office of the Chancellor
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December 16-18, 2010: View of the Field Trial site; Research personnel start the removal of the plants in compliance with the Mayor's order; City team chop up the plant materials, pour chlorine into plastic drums and rinse the plastic sheets; The sheets are lumped in a corner of the field; City team shovel the plant materials into the pit; City team continue the removal and disposal of the plants and the planting materials.

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STATEMENT WRITTEN AND ISSUED BY DR. EUFEMIO RASCO ON NOVEMBER 5, 2010.

We are making the following clarifications in the light of the vicious campaign being waged internationally and in Davao City to discredit the Bt eggplant. Bt eggplant is the subject of a scientific research that aims to promote human health and environment.

1. 1. 1. The Bt eggplant is a variety that combines the superior characteristics of traditional Philippine eggplant varieties and the insect protectant gene of a useful bacterium, the same bacterium used safely as insecticidal spray by organic and conventional farmers alike for 40 years. This bacterium exists naturally in the soil and humans have been exposed to it probably for as long as the existence of the human species. Bt eggplant was developed by the Institute of Plant Breeding, University of the Philippines Los Baños, a public institution. UP Mindanao will test the efficacy of this technology under Davao conditions. This variety will protect human health and the environment by reducing the use of toxic chemical pesticides that farmers traditionally use to control infestations of the eggplant fruit and shoot borer, the insect pest that Bt eggplant effectively controls. Studies have shown substantial economic benefits to farmers and consumer alike with the use of Bt eggplant. Contrary to the lie spread by well funded campaigners that Bt eggplant is designed to promote monopoly of the eggplant seed industry by prohibiting the tradition of saving seed, the Bt eggplant seeds can be saved by farmers as the technology is not legally protected under Philippine laws.

2. 2. 2. The safety of Bt eggplant is guaranteed by the tests conducted by an international group of scientists using internationally accepted standards which are science based. Campaigners who have deceived many Filipinos put too much weight on the opinion of Indian scientist Dr. Puspha Bhargava, who declared Bt eggplant as unsafe. Dr. Bhargava’s opinion is not supported by any verifiable/credible scientific evidence. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of India (Dr. Bhargava is an active participant in this committee), the government body that is assigned to evaluate the safety of Bt eggplant in India, has declared Bt eggplant to be safe ignoring the objections of Dr. Bhargava. Six national academies of sciences in India (the Academy is composed of the most senior and respected scientists) have declared Bt eggplant to be safe. Scientific risk assessment over a 10 year period in India and the Philippines done by hundreds of scientists in the public and private sectors has accumulated a body of evidence that indicates that Bt eggplant is at least as safe, probably safer, than ordinary eggplant. Bt corn, a technology that is similar to that of Bt eggplant, has been in use in the Philippines for more than 10 years, without any verifiable report on harm to environment or human health.

3. 3. 3. Anti-Bt eggplant campaigners complain that UP Mindanao is not exerting enough effort to educate the public about Bt eggplant. It is true that we do not have the resources to match the well funded international campaign to discredit Bt eggplant. We have tried to reach the Davao City public through the following activities:
a. Two seminars in the last three months held in our Mintal campus on the risks and benefits of Bt eggplant. The last one was on September 29, when the general public, including barangay officials of Mintal and Bago Oshiro, were invited. In this seminar,  the researchers and regulators who were directly responsible for the Bt eggplant technology informed the audience about Bt eggplant.
b. Participation of UP Mindanao in the consultation organized by the Davao City Government-City Agriculturist’s Office at Ateneo de Davao University on September 30. Professor Eufemio Rasco, Jr., one of UP Mindanao’s most senior scientists with the eminent title of UP Scientist and an Academician of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), gave a 1.5 hour talk about Bt eggplant. Unfortunately, the press people who may have been in attendance were only interested in what Dr. Bhargava had to say. The press account of the consultation was almost entirely about Dr. Bhargava’s biased opinions and practically none of the science based information provided by Prof. Rasco.
c. Prof. Rasco promptly responded to the written request of the City Agriculturist Office for comments regarding Bt eggplant . He even offered the use of UP Mindanao’s library on GMOs for those who like to learn directly what it is about instead of simply listening to Dr. Bhargava’s misleading statements. Prof. Rasco participated in the City Government-organized forum, even if the invitation of the City Agriculturist came during the busiest time in the University (it was the last week of the semester), and on a very short notice, apparently to suit the schedule of Dr. Bhargava.
d. Posting of the Public Information Sheet about the proposed Bt eggplant experiment in the bulletin boards of Bago Oshiro, Mintal and UP Mindanao as early as May 2010. This is because the University believes in proper and accurate dissemination of scientific information.
e. Involvement of two community representatives in the UP Mindanao Institutional Biosafety Committee which monitors the confined field trial.

Please note that UP Mindanao is required by law to do only (d) and (e) above.

4. Regarding the nature of the UP Mindanao experiment, it is a confined field trial, not the open field trial that the anti GMO movement has misled the Davao community about. Thus, our activity is consistent with the wishes of the Davao City Officials for safety assurances. The nature of our experiment could have been clarified in any of the seminars presented above, if only people asked and if only they were prepared to listen. Following the protocol prescribed by AO8 of the Department of Agriculture, a confined field trial means all the plant materials will be destroyed after taking data (nothing will be eaten, nothing will be left in the experimental site). It also means that access to the trial site will be restricted to those authorized by the Bureau of Plant Industry, the statutory body responsible for regulation of this trial. Science-based precautions will be taken to prevent the movement of seed or pollen outside of the experimental area.

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