The Philippine Court of Appeals said there is a lack of "full scientific certainty" and has ordered that scientists "permanently cease and desist" from continuing the trials needed for the commercial release of Bt eggplant.
The case was heard after Greenpeace had petitioned the Philippine Supreme Court in 2012 to stop the field trials. A temporary halt to the trials was called and the case passed to the Court of Appeals for review.
Bt eggplant contains the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium, which is toxic to the fruit and shoot borer, a major pest that can destroy up to 70 per cent of eggplants, the most popular vegetable in the country.
The petition claimed the field trials could contaminate more than 500 varieties of eggplant and other wild and weed-like relatives. It raised the possibility that with its insect-resistance gene, Bt eggplant can create aggressive weeds that may wreak havoc on agriculture and natural habitats
The appellants include the Philippines Department of Agriculture, and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Earlier this year, ISAAA reported that biosafety data from field trials of Bt eggplant had been gathered in eight sites that started in 2010.
The ruling is not likely to affect current Bt eggplant research. But it puts on hold the market for the GM eggplant, potentially a major industry.
Scientists are also worried that the court's decision will be used as a precedent to prevent field trials of other biotech crops such as the golden rice that the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are developing, and GM papaya and abacá, which local scientists are working on.
"We will appeal the decision," says William Padolina, who heads the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), which advises the Philippine government. "That means bringing the case before the Supreme Court."
Greenpeace welcomes the ruling."This landmark decision reflects that there are indeed flaws and lapses in the current regulatory process for genetically modified organisms such as Bt eggplant, which exposes our environment and health to unknown long-term consequences," says Daniel Ocampo, Greenpeace's sustainable agriculture campaigner in South-East Asia.
But Emiliana Bernardo, a member of the scientific and technical review panel at the Department of Agriculture, which assesses the safety of GM foods, says most eggplant farmers spray insecticides every other day, or up to 80 times during the growing season, to control the borer.
This means consuming conventional eggplants is more dangerous because "we are eating poison directly", adds Ruben Villareal, former chancellor of University of Philippines Los Baños, one of the research institutions conducting the field trials for the government.
A 2007 PhilRice study (Ex-Ante Economic Impact Assessment of Bt Eggplant Crop Production in the Philippines) concluded that Bt eggplant will reduce pesticide use by 48 per cent and could raise a farmer’s income by about US$2,200 per hectare, as production cost is cut by 16 per cent.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.