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[CEBU, PHILIPPINES] Field trials of genetically modified (GM) eggplant have been suspended following a dispute at one of the trial sites that led local officials to uproot 3,000 plants.

Two of seven field trials of the plant — also known as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) brinjal — were halted last month (29 December), two weeks after local authorities in Davao City uprooted plants because researchers had not fully complied with public consultation requirements.

Scientists had been hoping to complete the seven trials by the end of this year and commercialise Bt eggplant next year.

But research has now been delayed by at least six months, according to Eufemio Rasco Jr, lead researcher at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

In the first incident, on 17 December, Sara Duterte-Carpio, Davao City Mayor, issued a cease-and-desist order to the university, and ordered the destruction of the plants, because scientists had failed to post a public information sheet about the trials at the City Hall, breaking rules governing the release of GM crops into the environment.

The Bureau of Plant Industry — the government agency that regulates GM field trials — then suspended the trial along with another one at Visayas State University, which had also failed fully to comply.

Merle Palacpac, chair of the bureau's Biotech Core Team, said the permit for both trials could be reinstated once all requirements were met.

Last-ditch efforts by the researchers and the bureau to prevent the uprooting failed.

Leonardo Avila III, Davao City agriculturist, said the researchers had ignored concerns raised by locals since September and had failed to reply to a letter from the mayor, supported by a resolution passed by the Davao City council in October, requesting that the trials meet stricter standards of confinement.  

"We are not anti-GM. The problem is transparency. We just want to know what's happening. The Local Government Code clearly states that they should consult and explain the project to us," Avila said.

But Rasco said that his researchers have "clarified all issues directly and indirectly, in newspapers and public forums," and have tried to educate the public through two seminars on the risks and benefits of Bt eggplant.

"It was unjust," said Rasco. "The moral equivalent is putting a jaywalker before a firing squad. We were punished for a flimsy reason."

The university said it had "not violated any requirements that would impact on biosafety and public health". There was no danger of cross-pollination because the eggplant is a self-pollinated crop.

The Philippines was the first country in Asia to commercialise a GM crop — Bt corn — for food and animal feed. Bt eggplant was to be its second GM crop.

There is growing resistance to Bt eggplant in a city where an organic agriculture ordinance is in effect, and there is a strong anti-GM movement led by Greenpeace and local non-governmental organisation Go Organic Mindanao.

Bruce Chassy, associate director of the Biotechnology Center at the University of Illinois, United States, said he believes that anti-GM advocates may have poured their resources into the Philippines "because they fear the model the Philippines has set up may spread like a cancer and infect countries that now reject or are uncertain about GM crops.

"The Philippines has been a beacon of scientific enlightenment in a vast sea of darkness with regards to sound, science-based policies about agricultural biotechnology and GM crops. This poses an enormous threat to the movement against GM," he said.

India banned the planting of Bt eggplant last year, until the public and scientists are convinced of its safety, a fact that is often cited in other countries' anti-GM campaigns.