Greenpeace members led by Daniel Ocampo who trespassed and destroyed the experimental site of the fruit and shoot borer resistant (FSBR) Bt eggplant in the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) last February 17, 2011 are to be prosecuted for malicious mischief by the Provincial Prosecution Office of Laguna Province. Among those to be charged include Indian nationals Shavani Shah and Ali Abbas of Greenpeace. Both joined Ocampo and his team in vandalizing the legitimate experiment.
The resolution, signed by Provincial Prosecutor George C. Dee and passed last May 13, 2011, stated as an undisputed fact that the Greenpeace members forcibly entered the experimental farm of the University with the common purpose to pull up the existing experimental plants which caused damages to the experimental plant breeds worth Php25,000,000.00.
In an official statement, Dr. Luis Rey Velasco, UPLB Chancellor, said that the University will pursue the case “to ensure that the violators will be held liable for their actions. We have to protect the interest of the University and defend our academic freedom.”
He said that the prosecutor’s decision confirms that there is violation of the Law when Greenpeace members forcibly entered the experimental site in the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), destroying the perimeter fence and uprooting the experimental plants.
He reaffirmed that the Bt eggplant field trial “is a legitimate experiment of UPLB designed to evaluate the merits and demerits of the technology.”
“We followed national policies and rules and regulations. We have permissions from the authorities”, said Chancellor Velasco.
Dr. Lourdes D. Taylo, research study leader of the Bt eggplant project in UPLB, said that the decision was a welcome news for those directly involved in the development of Bt eggplant.
She emphasized that Bt eggplant is a UPLB project that is still in the research and development phase. The project’s main objective, she said, is to develop a variety of eggplant that is resistant to eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB), thereby increasing the farmer’s yield and decreasing the overdependence on insecticide use.
“We are fully compliant with all the conditions stipulated in the biosafety permit for the conduct of field trial of GM eggplant issued by the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI). Our activities are strictly monitored by the Post Entry Quarantine Service of BPI and members of the UPLB Institutional Biosafety Committee,” added Dr. Taylo.
Eggplant is one of the most important vegetables in the country and ranks as the number one vegetable in terms of area of production and volume valued at more than Php 3 billion at current prices. Eggplant production and profitability are severely reduced by EFSB by as much as 50 to 75 percent. Farmers rely on heavy and often improper use of pesticides to control the pest. It has been documented that chemical spraying could reach up to 70-80 times per season or every other day, and farmers even resort to dipping the fruits in a cocktail mix of insecticides. This is a widespread practice that causes serious environmental and health hazards to farmers (including their family members who help in the farm) and consumers. The current farmer’s practice is considered to be highly hazardous, expensive and unsustainable.
The Bt eggplant is a promising biotechnological innovation that could control the damage of EFSB in eggplant farming. This biotech product being developed by UPLB-IPB and its partners in the Philippines under the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSP II), with public sector funding from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of Agriculture (DA), is currently under multi-location trial and is being assessed for agricultural performance and biosafety.
Through the Seed Industry Development Act of 1992, UPLB-IPB is the lead institution mandated to use biotechnology in public sector variety improvement programs for crops other than rice in the Philippines. UPLB-IPB uses conventional and innovative science and technology and collaborates with various partners to develop safe technologies to address the needs of all clients and provide them safe and effective choices.
Another case lost
The legal dispute Greenpeace is facing from UPLB is not the first official case in which Greenpeace was involved. In 2009, the group of Greenpeace, SEARICE and other associates lost a petition they filed against the Liberty Link Rice 62, a herbicide tolerant variety, developed by Bayer Crop Science, Inc.
The group had earlier petitioned to declare as unconstitutional the public consultation provisions of the DA Administrative Order No. 8 and to bar the BPI from approving Bayer’s application to use LLRice 62 in the country. It also sought and got a preliminary injunction from a trial court barring the BPI from approving the application.
In the end, the Court of Appeals (CA) of the Philippines granted the petitions of BPI and Bayer to nullify the writ of preliminary injunction initially granted by the lower Quezon City Regional Trial Court.
The arguments by the Greenpeace and other petitioners were found by the CA to be “too contingent and speculative to warrant injunctive relief.” The decision further said that the Greenpeace and co-petitioners “have failed to prove any right in esse to entitle them to the issuance of a writ of injunction.
Bt eggplant trials: Legally endorsed
Despite concerted efforts from anti-biotech groups to stop its conduct, local governments and offices recognize the rightfulness and legality of Bt eggplant multi-location field trials in the country.
The provincial council of North Cotabato finally endorsed last May 19 2011 the conduct of Bt eggplant field trial in the University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan, North Cotabato, after months of deliberation and public consultations.
North Cotabato Vice Governor Gregorio Ipong said that the decision on whether or not to push through with the trials now lies with the proponents.
Board Member Vicente Sorupia, Jr. said that the earlier decision of the Kabacan municipal council to allow the field trial should be respected since Kabacan is the host community and the subject of the Prior Informed Consent Doctrine. Sorupia also said that the proponents have complied with all the requirements set by the Bureau of Plant Industry.
The Governor, Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza, said she will support the outputof the provincial council members, further explaining that field testing is a legitimate program of the Department of Agriculture and the state university to address the “pros” and “cons” of the technology.
Members of the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) in USM were delighted with North Cotabato’s decision. The IBC is part of the regulating body of the field trial.
In a statement, the IBC wrote that the endorsement proves that the local officials are “open to new knowledge, new technologies, and useful cultural shifts; that they know how to strike a balance between facts and myths; discern what is logical, vital, critical and beneficial; and weigh the merits and demerits of issues. Above all, they have allowed reason to prevail over emotions.”
They also said that the council “acted on the issue objectively and mustered courage to take reasonable calculated risks in search for more truth without necessarily losing sight of the common good of the people…they exercised rational, critical and analytical thinking to generate sound judgment or decisions to unravel more science-based facts that shall eventually guide them in their future legislative actions and decisions.”
Several local government units have also expressed their support to conduct the trials.
Five (5) barangays and two (2) other town councils have already expressed their approval to carry on with the field trials in their respective sites.
Resolutions supporting the Bt eggplant field trials were passed by the following barangays: Paitan, Cauplasanand Sta. Rosa in the town of Sta. Maria, Pangasinan; Putho-Tuntungin in Los Baños; and Paciano Rizal in Bay, Laguna. Brgy.Paitan and Brgy.Paciano Rizal each hosts a field trial site in their jurisdiction.
The municipal council of Bay, Laguna has also resolved to authorize the conduct of the experiment. Last February 14, 2011, the municipal council decided to allow the University of the Philippines Los Baños continue their experiment. The Bay Municipal Agriculturist also said that such experiments were covered by biosafety regulations and is therefore closely monitored.
In Bicol, the town of Pili, Camarines Sur, where a field trial by the Central Bicol State University of Agriculture (CBSUA) is being conducted, has denied the petition of anti-GMO group MASIPAG to stop the field test. Pili Vice Mayor Ronaldo Boclot, in his letter to CBSUA President Marito Bernales, said that the opposing group led by MASIPAG did not provide clear proof of Bt eggplant’s detrimental effect to health.
Farmers laud favorable decision
The Laguna prosecutor’s decision, meanwhile, was met by approving nods from farmers.
Rosalie Ellasus, a farmer and councilor from San Jacinto, Pangasinan, lauded the prosecutor’s decision and said that it proves that such acts that delay the release of beneficial farm technologies is not tolerated by authorities.
She also emphasized the fact that what the Greenpeace members destroyed was still an experiment. “What is the use of sending our children to school to learn these things if we would not use the technologies they are being taught?” she pointed out. “We need to know the facts.”
Many farmers in the country are already awaiting the release of Bt eggplant seeds. Last April 28 this year, farmers from different regions of Mindanao ratified a set of resolutions, which included the support for the continuation of the field trials. The resolution was from the conference conducted by the Asian Farmers Regional Network (ASFARNET) Philippines October last year during the 7th National Corn Congress. The farmers recognized that Bt eggplant seeds will be greatly beneficial in their farms.
The continuation of information, education and communication efforts on biotechnology for farmers and the coexistence of organic and biotech farming were also among the resolutions ratified by the farmers.
The use of Bt eggplant offers significant economic and environmental benefits. Socio-economic studies conducted showed that farmer adoption of Bt eggplant could provide additional income of about Php50,000 due to increased marketable yield and reduced insecticide use by us much as 48% thereby reducing environmental footprint by about 20%.
Farmer Isidro Acosta from Naguilian, Isabela said that such decisions give justice to farmers because Bt eggplant would be an additional choice for them. Farmers, he said, should be given the right to choose the technologies they would like to apply to their farms. Bt eggplant is one promising biotechnology product that farmers are anticipating to be made available to them. -30- Jenny A. Panopio and Sophia M. Mercado, SEARCA