AGRICULTURE Secretary Proceso Alcala expressed strong opposition to the genetically modified eggplant currently tested in Davao City.

Alcala on Monday said he would never give his approval to genetically modified foods unless proven that there are no side effects to humans.

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Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant is genetically modified to kill the eggplant shoot and fruit borer (more commonly known as "uod") by itself.

"I will not allow it for human consumption as long as walang concrete at definite na kasagutan na ito po ay makakasira o hindi sa kalusugan ng ating kababayan," Alcala said during the Kapihan sa SM media forum on Monday.

"Ito'y ang personal position ko and I think I'll have the full support of the department on this na hangga't walang 100 percent na guarantee na ito pong Bt egpplant. Kasi diretso na itong kakainin ng tao eh, kung sa Bt corn ay nakalusot sila dahil ito po ay ginagamit sa ating feedmills pero yun pong diretsong kakainin ng tao I think I will not allow this to happen. We're not sure kung meron itong side effect," Alcala said.

Alcala, however, said the public should not give in to speculations that said eggplant will enter our market without the department's approval.

"Medyo na-exaggerate lang. Contained area yung testing area. Hindi ito aabot sa isang hectare," Alcala added.

Incidentally, it was no less than University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB), which reported about the eventual commercialization of Bt eggplant by 2011.

In a July 1, 2010 press release of UPLB Research Development and Extension News, it said, "The Philippines will become the first in Asia to commercialize the genetically modified (GM) fruit and shoot borer (FSB)-resistant eggplant by 2011. This developed after the harvest of Bt eggplant, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAid), in a trial site in Pangasinan."

It cited BASP Product Development manager Desiree Hautea as saying that the Institute of Biotechnology of the UPLB will release Bt eggplant seeds to the market by next year after an approval of the National Biosafety Committee (NCBP).

The commercial release of the Bt eggplant will be made soon after field trials later this year in Leyte, Iloilo, Kabacan in North Cotabato, and Davao City.

Commercial release of Bt eggplant, however, was shelved in India after no less than the Indian government halted such plan next year.

In an agribusiness conference at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao, in Bago Oshiro, Davao City on Monday, Dr. Eufemio Rasco Jr. said they will start the field test soon after a memorandum of understanding is signed between UP-Mindanao and the Institute for Plant Breeding (IPB).

It was not revealed how big an area the eggplants will be field tested in.

Last week, an organic farming group and other concerned institutions expressed opposition over the planned field testing of a genetically modified eggplant in Davao City.

Environmental groups are also stirred up anew with this development because experiments on Bt eggplant are even kept from them and from the public.

"Ang masama sa Bt talong, walang information na lumabas, kahit itanong mo lang ano ang dose, kasi iba-iba yang dose ng Bt sa GMOs (What is bad with Bt eggplant is no information about it was released, even the dosage, because Bt dosage on genetically modified organisms [GMOs] varies)," said Neth Dano of ETC Group, a global non-government organization pushing for ecological and cultural diversity.

While GMOs are being pushed as the solution to farmers' woes, some are cautious, considering the absence of long-term safety testing on GMOs.

Tranquilina Alibango, an organic farmer of the Kababaihang Nagtataglay ng Bihirang Lakas, aired her opposition to the field testing of Bt eggplant, knowing that their organic produce will be contaminated by the presence of genetically modified plants.

Asked how organic farmers deal with "uod", Alibango said all it takes is a mixture of "paniawan" and chili pepper.

"Kanang mga uod, gamay ra man pud ang maapektuhan niana (But those eggplant borers can only do little damage to the produce)," she said, except in monocrop farms where only eggplants are produced.

Monocrop farms are more prone to pest infestations, regardless of the produce planted there, because the natural interaction of pests and plants are disturbed as only one plant is being propagated.

City ordinance

Also, the plan to field test and for an eventual commercial production of this GMO in the city goes against the Organic Agriculture Ordinance of Davao City, said Interface Development Interventions executive director Lia Jasmin Esquillo.

The ordinance aims to institutionalize, promote, and develop organic agriculture in the city, added Esquillo.

Once commercial production of GM plants commences, the Institute of Plant Biotechnology of the UPLB intends to release open pollinated varieties (OPV) of GM plants.

OPVs are those whose seeds can be saved and planted again unlike the hybrid ones that are only good for one planting, and whose quality starts to decline after the first harvest.

OPVs will carry the genetic modification downline through generations.

But the problem is that GM plants can easily contaminate organically grown plants through cross-pollination.

"Kung magre-release ka ng OPV, mahahawa yung iba," Dano said.

Dano also pointed the peculiarity of eggplant in being self-pollinating but stressed that eggplant is among the easiest plants to be cross-pollinated.

In similar development, the Ministry of Environment and Forests of India (MEFI), which developed the Bt eggplant, has trashed the recommendation of India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to approve the release of the GMO eggplant.

MEFI pointed out that the tests for the genetically modified eggplant were all carried out in the laboratories of the developers of the eggplant and not in an independent laboratory.

"This does raise legitimate doubts on the reliability of the tests, doubts that I cannot ignore," Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said in his nine-page decision on why Bt eggplant or Bt Brinjal as it is called in India should not be approved for large-scale trials and release to the environment.

Davao City, specifically Mintal, has been identified as one of seven field testing sites of Bt eggplant.

The other areas are in Sta. Maria, Camarines Sur, Ba-i in Laguna, Sta. Barbara in Iloilo, Baybay in Leyte, and at the University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan.

As of 2009, based on the monitoring of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, the Philippines is number 11 worldwide in terms of global area of biotech crops with .5 million hectares planted with GMOs. It is topped only by 10 land-rich countries: USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, and Bolivia.

Nothing, however, has been mentioned about eggplants until the much-publicized harvesting early this year.

In a news article in a national newspaper published on June 28, 2010, USAid-funded Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project announced that the Philippines will become the first Asian country to commercialize the Bt eggplant. (Jade Zaldivar/ Stella A. Estremera/Sunnex)