Bt eggplant safe for humans, animals – UPLB expert

  • 22 September 2014, Monday

4 Sep 2014

STA. MARIA, Pangasinan, Sept. 3 (PNA) –- A leading proponent for the development and cultivation of Bt eggplant from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) stressed the safety of the genetically-modified crop for human and animal consumption during the first public dialogue on Bt eggplant that was held Wednesday at the Pangasinan State University in the town of Sta. Maria, Pangasinan.

The dialogue is being held at a venue for objective discussion and sharing of knowledge on the development and science behind Bt eggplant, food safety concerns surrounding its development and its potential socio-economic impact.

The public dialogue was attended by farmers and local officials from the towns of San Jacinto, Asingan, Rosales, San Manuel, Umingan and Sta. Maria as well as representatives from the academe, the provincial government and other stakeholders.

Dr. Desiree Hautea, project leader of the FSBR/Bt Project under UPLB’s Institute of Plant Breeding – Crop Science Cluster, said that Bt eggplant was developed through the use of modern biotechnology techniques by introducing a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, to the common eggplant that made it resistant to the fruit and shoot borer (FSB).

According to the UPLB scientist, Bacillus thuringiensis is a non-pathogenic bacterium found worldwide that has a long history of safe use in farming worldwide.

“It has been used as a bio-pesticide for insect control in both organic and non-organic farms for 50 years now and has been introduced as insect control in genetically-modified (GM) crops such as Bt corn and Bt cotton for 16 years,” Hautea said.

She explained that Bt eggplant was developed by introducing a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) designated Bt Cry1A – the gene that makes the bacteria so effective in insect control – to the common eggplant to come out with the GM crop.

“The Bt stands for the name of the bacteria and not ‘biotechnology’ as alleged by many,” she said.

Bt eggplant was developed by the UPLB to combat the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) which is considered the bane among eggplant farmers in the whole of Asia.

Experts have said that FSB infestation has lead to production losses that is estimated to reach between 51 to 73 percent in the Philippines.

This represents a major drop in vegetable production as eggplant is the country’s main cash crop in terms of both production volume and value.

The main means of combating FSB is by extensive use of pesticides.

However, pesticides, including labor costs in its application, are expensive and are effective only to newly-hatched worms which have yet to bore its way into the plant’s shoots and fruit.

In comparison, Hautea said that when the Bt eggplant is started to be eaten by the destructive insect, the protein produced by the Bt Cry1A gene causes the FSB to lose appetite and eventually die.

“More significantly, countless field tests have shown that while the protein in Bt eggplant is only lethal to FSB, it does not affect humans, farm animal or other insects and have shown no adverse effects to the environment,” she stressed.

She said that since the start of its development in the Philippines in 2003, Bt eggplant had undergone stringent scientific and regulatory risk assessment procedures from national and private agencies as well as independent experts to ensure the biosafety of the new crop.

Hautea explained that biosafety of GM crops in the country has four stages – contained trial in a research laboratory; single location trial; multi-location trials; and commercial cultivation.

The National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) is the regulatory body that is tasked to assess the biosafety of FSB-resistant (FSBR) eggplant, the other name for Bt eggplant, in a contained and confined condition.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) and other regulatory agencies under the Department of Agriculture supervises the safety assessment and monitoring procedures during field trials and after the commercial release.

“The principles of risk assessment accepted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety were strictly implemented. The risk assessment done was science-based, followed a case-to-case basis, was step-by-step and comparative,” she said.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a UN-FAO body that issues guidelines on food safety and which adopted the Principles and Guidelines on Foods Derived from Biotechnolgy in 2003.

“By comparative, it means that the Bt eggplant was compared with the common eggplant in terms of yield, pesticide residue and resistance to the FSB among others,” Hautea said.

She said the assessments were done to avoid risk to human and animal health as well as to the environment; identify or evaluate potential adverse effects of the GM crop to humans and the environment; and to determine the chances these risks would occur and to what extent.

From the field trials, Hautea said that they have come up with some key results.

“Bt eggplant was found to have significantly lesser FSB damage, higher undamaged yield advantage from the common eggplant by as high as 7,000 percent and, more importantly, has no adverse effects on other insects, humans, animals and on the environment where it was introduced,” Hautea noted.

The use of Bt eggplant likewise improves the integrity of the environment due to a significant drop in pesticide use which also makes it safer to consume than the pesticide-laden common variety.

For farmers, higher yield from Bt eggplant would translate to higher income.

However, despite these positive findings, the release of the Bt eggplant for commercial use has been put on hold.Hautea said that while all field trials have already been finished and meticulously assessed in 2013, a well-organized and well-funded group had been blocking the commercial cultivation of the GM crop.

Among the group’s arguments was that modifying the eggplant’s genes through the introduction of foreign DNA is not safe for human consumption as it may also alter the human DNA.

A Writ of Kalikasan was also issued by the Supreme Court to stop its cultivation until all issues are heard and resolved by the SC.

“With farmgate prices of eggplant now reaching as high as P80 per kilo due to declining production caused by FSB, we hoped that the case would be resolved soon so that we could start commercializing Bt eggplant,” Hautea said.

The Bt eggplant project in the Philppines is being undertaken in the Philippines by the Institute of Plant Breeding of UP Los Baños in cooperation with the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), the Department of Agriculture, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, Indian Mahrashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited, Cornell University and USAID. (PNA)