GM crops crucial to Philippines agri security

  • 29 January 2016, Friday

Source: The Philippine Star
24 Jan 2016

LOS BAÑOS, Laguna, Philippines – Ever heard of “pesticide cocktails”?

No, it’s not a fancy concoction of an alcoholic drink. Rather, it is a mixture of toxic chemicals blended to neutralize fruit and shoot borer (FSB), the most destructive pest attacking eggplants in the Philippines and other countries in Asia.

Usually, the chemical mixture is poured in a container, mostly bamboo tubes, where hanging eggplant fruits are dipped to shield them from the attack of FSB.

Distressingly, children, particularly boys, are being harnessed in the “chemical warfare” against eggplant pests, according to some studies.

Researchers have expressed concern that the use of child labor has become widespread in the country’s “pesticide-laced” eggplant industry.

One practice in which children are exposed to the hazards of the now multi-billion-peso industry is the use of “pesticide cocktails”, where maturing or ready-to-harvest eggplant fruits are dipped to protect them from pests.

The children are harnessed in this practice because they have small and flexible body frames, unlike their ageing farmer-parents who could hardly do the chore without experiencing body aches as they have to bend now and then in the process.

In a related study, Jinky Leilane Lu of the University of the Philippines Manila-National Institute of Health observed that many farm families living near fields planted with crops regularly sprayed with pesticide are suffering from ailments brought about by exposure to toxic chemicals.

Such afflictions are manifested by headache, itchiness and burning sensation of the skin, dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, and listlessness,  Lu said.

Results of her study in eggplant farms in Pangasinan are contained in a report that forms a chapter of a book titled “Socioeconomic Impacts of Bt Eggplant: Ex-ante Case Studies in the Philippines”.

The book was published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications and the Philippine government-hosted, Los Baños-based Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) in collaboration with the UPLB College of Development Communication, Indian Society of Cotton Improvement, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and John Templeton Foundation.

“Detectable concentrations of insecticide residues in soil, water (both groundwater and surface water), air, and even commodities pose risks to human health and environment,” Lu pointed out,  citing other studies by researchers in various parts of the world.

Eggplant is now the country’s top vegetable crop, with about 40,000 farmers planting it in 21,000 hectares.

However, former Science Minister and UP president Emil Q. Javier said eggplant is “very susceptible” to the fruit and shoot borer, which not only kills the plants but also renders the fruits inedible and non-marketable.

Damage to crop is sometimes as high as 100 percent, said Sergio Francisco of the Department of Agriculture.

Javier said farmers resort to chemical pesticides to protect eggplant crops.

Infestation is so bad that many farmers spray every other day as many as 80 times per eggplant cropping season, which is six to eight months, he noted.

“The more desperate ones have been observed to practice dipping each hanging eggplant fruit into a container full of chemicals,” Javier said.

“The Bt eggplant which has built-in resistance to the FSB was intended to replace the chemical spray technology which Filipino farmers currently employ to raise the eggplants we eat,” he added.

Javier expressed disappointment over the decision of the Supreme Court to stop the field testing of BT talong, a variety of genetically modified eggplant because it allegedly poses risks to human health and the environment.

As the country’s top vegetable crop, eggplant yields 201,000 metric tons valued at about P3 billion

Over the years, FSB has evolved as the crop’s most destructive pest.

FSB is pernicious that farmers often throw away 50-70 percent of their harvest Javier said.

The research sector has been trying to address the FSB problem through the four-phased, year’s long study on Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) eggplant.

However, the scientific project was stopped at its penultimate (pre-commercialization) stage on the petition of anti-GM organism campaigners.

Led by UP Los Baños-Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB), the research was launched in 2004 as an answer to the pestering FSB.

The project started when a MAHYCO biotechnology eggplant and two Philippine varieties were crossed. The resulting eggplant was subsequently experimented on by UPLB-IPB in greenhouse trials.

The eggplant variant was further studied in Pangasinan, Camarines Sur, North Cotabato and Davao City.

During the trial period, the experimental plants at UPLB-IPB and UP Mindanao were uprooted by anti-GMO activists. Some of those who raided the UPLB-IPB experimental farm have been charged in court.

On the whole, however, data were gathered to warrant the project’s transition to the research project’s next stage.

Studies show that FSB feeds on the leaves and shoots of eggplant during the vegetative stage and feasts on the fruits during the fruiting stage. Eggplants riddled with holes cannot be sold anywhere.

In the research, The STAR had gathered, GM or Bt talong was found to be resistant to FSB because it produces a natural protein that makes it resistant to the pest. Once an FSB feeds on Bt eggplant fruits, leaves, and shoots, it stops eating and eventually dies.