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Controversial eggplant reaches Supreme Court
by Paul M. Icamina
11-May-2012 Malaya
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Contrary to national interest, Or hopelessly flawed.

Take your pick. Whatever your choice, in what is billed as the Great Talong War, the pros and cons of a controversial eggplant has reached the Supreme Court.

The gene of the so-called Bt eggplant has been modified to resist potentially disastrous infestations of the fruit and shoot borer, a major pest of eggplant. It is resistant because of a gene from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis; that’s where the “Bt” term comes from.

Like its predecessor the Bt corn, the Bt eggplant has long been the bone of contention between supporters and critics.

Early last year, Greenpeace activists destroyed a Bt eggplant field test site inside the Univertsity of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) campus in Laguna. The prosecutor’s office in Laguna had recommended a case of malicious mischief against the activists.

After some local opposition, the field testing of Bt eggplant finally started at the University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan, North Cotabato, only last March.

Contrary to the allegations of critics, Bt eggplant is potentially the best environment-friendly technology for eggplant production, said Dr. Emil Q. Javier, President of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), the government’s highest science and technology policy advisory body.

The petition before the Supreme Court runs contrary to the national interest, he said.

“The government’s GMO (Gene Modified Organism) approval system is hopelessly flawed and biased toward the release and propagation of GMOs in the country. The government’s pro-GMO approach is unfortunately resulting in a massive and uncontrolled unleashing of GMOs into our diets and our environment,” said Von Hernandez, Greenpeace-Philippine Executive Director.

Greenpeace is one of petitioners that urged the Supreme Court in late April to stop the government from introducing genetically engineered eggplants in the country.

The petitioners included the Magsasaka at Siyentipiko sa Pagpapaunlad ng Agrikultura (Masipag), Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casino, former Sen. Orlando Mercado, Puerto Pricesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn and artist Noel Cabangon.

Citing health and environmental hazards, a group of scientists, farmers and other individuals filed a 68-page petition for continuing mandamus and the Writ of Kalikasan.

They oppossed the government’s field testing of the Bt eggplant which has been genetically modified to resist fruit and shoot borer infestation. They asked for a temporary environmental protection order.

The writ of kalikasan is a legal remedy under Philippine law available to individuals, groups and organizations on behalf of persons whose constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology is violated, or threatened with violation, by a private individual or entity, public official or employee, involving environmental damage of such magnitude as to prejudice the life, health or property of inhabitants in two or more cities or provinces.

A writ of continuing mandamus is available to injured persons when any agency or officer of the government unlawfully neglects the performance of an act, excludes another from the enjoyment of rights, and there is no other plain, speedy and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law.

Named respondents were the Department of Envirnment and Natural Resources- Environmental Management Bureau; the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry and Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority; UPLB, UPLB Foundation, UP Mindanao Foundation and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications-Southeast Asia Center.

The Bt eggplant project in the Philippines is being conducted by the UPLB Institute of Plant Breeding.

Greenpeace said the petition shows the need to take precaution given the scientific uncertainties on the safety of GMOs.

Field testings of the Bt eggplant has been on-going since 2010. They are being conducted in Pangasinan, Camarines Sur, Davao City, Laguna and North Cotabato; field tests will also be made in Isabela, Nueva Ecija, Rizal, Iloilo and Leyte.

“Such testing will expose the Philippines to GMO contamination of more than 500 varieties of eggplant and other wild and weedy relatives,” the petitioners said.

The Bt eggplant “is a classic environmental case where scientific evidence as to the health and environemntal safety and socio-economic impact is insufficent, inconclusive or uncertain,” the petitioners said.

Owing to the novelty of the technology used as well as the fact that no long-term, comprehensive and extensive study has been done with respect to Bt eggplant, the petitioners said “there is no assurance that in the long term... this technology will not affect or produce harmful effects on the crop lands and range lands or other animal and plant species.”

They said preliminary scientific evaluation has indicated “reasonable grounds for concern about their potentially dangerous effects on the environment and human health.”

In view of the “conflicting claims” about the safety of the genetically modified plant, the government should have first applied precautionary measures before carrying out the field tests, the petitioners said.

The petition raised the possibility that with its built-in insect-resistance gene, the Bt eggplant can create aggressive weeds that may wreak havoc on local agriculture and natural habitats.

It cited the results of a 90-day laboratory test, conducted by proponents of GMOs on mice fed with the new Bt eggplant, which showed signs of toxicity in the liver and kidneys of the test subjects.

It pointed out the lack of long-term study to prove that the GMO would be safe for human consumption.

With its built-in insect-resistance gene, Bt eggplant poses risks of creating aggressive weeds that may wreak havoc on local agriculture and natural habitats, said Daniel Ocampo of Greenpeace.

“Contrary to the baseless allegations of the petitioners, Bt eggplant is potentially the best environmentally friendly technology for eggplant production,” Javier pointed out, adding the NAST is confident the Supreme Court will not act rashly on the petition,

He reaffirmed NAST’s support to the ongoing multi-location field testings of the Bt eggplant.

“The filing of the petition is not of national interest, and NAST, together with UP and the mainstream, reputable scientists from the local and global community, strongly support agricultural biotechnology,” Javier said.

Dr. Fernando Bernardo, a plant breeder who is a member of the Department of Agriculture’s Scientific and Technical Review Panel, belied the claim of Grenpeace that the country’s biosafety regulatory system is flawed and lax.

In fact, it is very strict, said Bernardo, a former university president and Deputy Director General of the International Rice Research Institute, adding scientists have already proven that Bt is safe as a bacterium that is ever present in the soil.

He said government approvals of field testing is science-based and that in every stage of assessment, all available information is evaluated. If necessary, the review panel asks for additional data and the scientific information must be complete and thoroughly evaluated before an application moves to the next stage of research, in this case, field testing.

Supporter of biotechnology say the country’s strict regulations are being used as a template by other nations who are embarking on biotechnology research and development.

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