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Philippine agricultural experts underscore need for alternative Bt eggplant technology

Manila, The Philippines
May 11, 2012

Excessive use of insecticides in eggplant farms is an urgent concern that calls for a safer alternative, said entomologist and member of Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP) of the Department of Agriculture Dr. Emiliana Bernardo.

According to Dr. Bernardo, who is also a member of the Institutional Biosafety Committee of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) for the multi-location field trial of Bt eggplant in the university, current methods used by some eggplant growers in controlling the fruit and shoot borer are unacceptable and unhealthy to farmers, consumers, and the environment. Many farmers spray insecticides up to 80 times per season, or every other day, just to rid their farms of borers. Studies conducted in major eggplant producing provinces found that almost all farmers use chemical insecticides; some even dip the unharvested eggplant fruits in cocktail mix of the chemicals just to ensure having marketable harvests and income.

“The very basic question is ‘which is safer?’ The present practice or the alternative, the Bt eggplant which is rigorously evaluated by experts? Is bathing the unharvested eggplant fruits in chemicals, which would end up in dinner tables of people, safe?” said Dr. Bernardo.

“The university is conducting research on Bt eggplant because we know that this has promising potentials and is considered safer than the current practice,” she said.

Dr. Bernardo also emphasized that Bt eggplant proponents are not against the use of pesticides but are against their excessive and injudicious use, and would prefer a technology that is more benign and sustainable such as Bt eggplant so farmers can have an available option to choose.

“The insecticide exposure of our farmers and environment is too much. The farmers, the consumers, the eggplant as food, and the environment—these are all affected by the chemical insecticides. We have to be practical,” she said.

On the concern of outcrossing Bt eggplant to other eggplant varieties, Dr. Bernardo said “So what if they outcross? What is wrong with eggplant varieties gaining resistance against destructive pests? It would in fact be an advantage. If Bt eggplant is established as safe, through the field trials and proper compliance with the national regulatory framework, then let it proliferate.”

Why Bt is safe
Bt eggplant is resistant to the fruit and shoot borer, a major pest of eggplant, because of a gene from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt.

According to Dr. Bernardo, a major consideration in the safety of Bt eggplant is its non-absorption in the human body. For the protein in Bt eggplant to be a toxin, it must first be activated under an alkaline environment, which is the condition in the gut (stomach) of Lepidopterous insects. She said that in the case of most animals, higher animals including humans, the digestive system is highly acidic. “We have the acidic condition of the stomach, thus the Bt protein will not be activated to a form that is toxic to insects, but rather will just be quickly denatured.”

Another most important scientific explanation is the absence of receptors in the digestive system of humans and non-target organisms. “If there are no receptors, even the activated Bt protein cannot be absorbed, and therefore it can never accumulate and affect our system,” stressed Dr. Bernardo.

Furthermore, the Bt protein itself is completely denatured and non-detectable in any cooked food, so to start with there is no Bt protein and there is no human exposure to Bt proteins in consuming cooked Bt crops.

Aside from being non-toxic in a non-target organism’s system, Bt protein also easily degrades and does not accumulate in the environment.

“Bt is a natural microbial organism in the soil. It has been used as an organic insecticide for so long already under the brand name Dipel. It is used here in the Philippines. The only problem is that the farmers are not too happy about it because it is easily degraded in the environment once exposed, and it is highly selective. In the case of Dipel, it is effective only against Lepidopterans--those insects with scaly wings. Yung mga paru-paro, yung mga worms noon. But the farmers would like a spray pesticide that will kill different kinds of insect pests. Kaya hindi masyadong nag-click.”

With its natural origin, long history of safe use, and the safe and proven mechanism of action, Bt does not go against the environment as alleged in the petition for a writ of kalikasan filed by the petitioners. “We are making use of native control tactic…we are trying to make full use of nature’s pest control agent against specific insect pests,” said Dr. Bernardo.

"The petitioners, purporting to be champions of the environment, are on the opposite side of the argument in this case. Ten years of Philippine experience on commercial GM/biotech crops, with hundreds of thousands of Filipino farmers having used the technology, and almost two million cumulative hectares of farms grown to GM/biotech crops in the country have provided solid, unequivocal evidence that the approved GM/biotech crops protect the environment and the welfare of farmers,” said Dr. Bernardo.

Dr. Bernardo was one of the three scientists who evaluated the first biotech corn in the Philippines. "The same groups of petitioners raised the same old questions against biotech corn more than 10 years ago, which they are just rehashing against Bt eggplant today. There is no new, substantive question on the safety of the technology, as I see it".

National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) Academician Dr. Ruben L. Villareal said that Bt crops that can resist infestation of specific insect pests are among those prioritized especially with their conventional counterparts being ineffective and costly.

He added that there has been no single reported scientifically proven case of food poisoning or allergy due to GM crops and that these have been benefitting farmers all over the world since 1996.

“Based on my experience as a vegetable breeder, there is no existing source of eggplant germplasm that is highly resistant to the fruit and shoot borer. Biotechnology is a tool that could develop varieties that would be advantageous to farmers, consumers, and the environment. We are actually very fortunate that the technology is available. With an effective and robust regulatory system in place, and technical capacities available, there is really a future for Bt eggplant to bring its potential benefits to our farmers,” he said.

The academician also defended Bt eggplant as a research endeavor of UPLB. “As former Chancellor of UPLB and director of the national Institute of Plant Breeding, I know for a fact that the institute is mandated by the law, through the Seed Industry Development Act of 1992, to use biotechnology in public sector variety improvement programs for crops other than rice in the Philippines. It is thus their duty to develop these new helpful varieties, using biotechnology as one of their tools.”

The global experience in biotech crops is extensive and compelling with over 1.25 billion hectares of biotech crops in 16 years grown repeatedly by millions of farmers in about 30 countries--and the net impact is a significant reduction in the environmental footprint of agriculture and the enhancement of environmental quality and social welfare, without a single case of verified food safety issue or major environmental concern.

Strict regulatory system
Dr. Fernando Bernardo, a renowned educator and plant breeder also serves as a member of the DA STRP. He belied the claim of anti-GMO groups that the biosafety regulatory system of the country is flawed and lax. From his experience as an evaluator, Dr. Bernardo shared how comprehensive and stringent the reviews and assessments are. “They [the petitioners] have not seen how thick the papers I have to review. I said, ‘this is too much.’ But approvals should be science-based. GMOs should be science-based. But scientists have already proven that Bt is safe as a bacterium ever present in the soil; it is all around us,” he said.

“Our regulatory system is too strict. Even those that no longer need to be done are still being implemented as required by government regulations,” said Dr. Bernardo.

Dr. Bernardo explained that in every stage of assessment, all available information is evaluated. The STRP would then ask for additional data if deemed necessary; information must be complete and thoroughly evaluated before an application moves to the next stage.

Government support
During a special seminar co-organized by the NAST on the global status of commercialized biotech/GM crops last February 2012, Agriculture Undersecretary for Policy, Planning and Research and Development Segfredo Serrano recognized biotechnology as a contributor in attaining food security.

“We have more challenges. Before, we just talk about food security which is a forever issue in this country. But beyond productivity and competitiveness, we need to be able to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change. And these are inevitable adverse impacts. This double urgency adds more constraints to attaining our food security and productivity goals. And therefore because of these, we have a renewed and scaled up urgency to attain and sustain food security. I think this is where biotechnology will be a lot of help,” said Usec. Serrano.

“Therefore the regulatory system must keep pace with the dynamic developments of the biotech industry,” he added. The undersecretary and the President of NAST Dr. Emil Q. Javier share the same sentiments that the Department of Agriculture needs to further strengthen the Bureau of Plant Industry in its regulatory functions for products of modern biotechnology.

Usec. Serrano concluded “The pristine world of the last couple or so centuries is gone, and can no longer be recovered. But this need not mean that the future cannot be one that befits humanity and its heritage of nature, a higher level of civilization and progress as befits the human intelligence and skill. It’s not impossible with technology.”

“We should stop pining for that which has been lost – we cannot confront modern-day debacles with aspirations of bringing back the Stone Age,” he said.

Last April, the Philippines celebrated a decade of successful biotech crops regulation and commercialization through the Department of Agriculture Administrative Order No. 8 which stipulates the rules and regulations for the importation and release into the environment of plants and plant products derived from the use of modern biotechnology. In his message, DA Secretary Proceso Alcala acknowledged and lauded the economic and environmental benefits brought by the propagation of biotech corn in the country. He said that the corn industry would not have the additional eight billion peso profit in the corn sector without biotech corn and that about 400,000 Filipino corn farmers have benefitted from this technology. The Secretary also reiterated that biosafety regulation in the country is based on international standards.

Stakeholders in the national corn industry have greatly benefitted from the implementation of DA AO8, attesting that corn yields significantly increased since the commercialization of Bt corn in 2003. National Corn Competitiveness Board Executive Director Salvador Umengan highlighted the significant yield increase and better corn quality of biotech corn translating to higher farm gate prices and higher income for farmers. In 2011 alone, the corn sector is valued at 57 billion pesos. Umengan reiterated that the corn industry, fueled by the increasing developments in GM technology, does not only benefit the corn farmers but also extends to the supply chain which includes the livestock and the food processing industries.

The national biosafety regulatory framework of the Philippines is also considered by many countries as a model framework in regulating modern biotech products.

More news from: SEAMEO SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center

Website: http://www.bic.searca.org

Published: May 11, 2012

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