Pinoy, foreign scientists re-tackle BT eggplant, biotech fears

  • 20 May 2016, Friday

Source: GMA News Online
19 May 2016

You’ve heard the term biotechnology before. Defined as “any technique that uses whole or part of a living thing to make new products, improve or develop plants, animals and other organisms for specific use,” biotechnology has many applications. Biotechnology is responsible for life-saving vaccines and fertilizers.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), “Traditional biotechnology includes fermentation to produce common products such as vinegar, soy sauce and wine.”

ISAAA-SEARCA celebration

On April 29, ISAAA, together with the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the global commercialization of biotech crops at a media conference in Muntinlupa City. Filipino and Bangladeshi scientists discussed advances made in the field of biotechnology in 2015. In particular, the conference highlighted the progress and acceptance of genetically modified eggplant, or Bt Brinjal, in Bangladesh.

ISAAA is “a not-for-profit international organization that shares the benefits of crop biotechnology to various stakeholders, particularly resource-poor farmers in developing countries, through knowledge sharing initiatives and the transfer and delivery of proprietary biotechnology applications.”

SEARCA is “a non-profit organization established by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) in 1966. As SEAMEO's center of excellence in agriculture, SEARCA is mandated ‘to provide to the participating countries high quality graduate study in agriculture; promote, undertake, and coordinate research programs related to the needs and problems of the Southeast Asian region; and disseminate the findings of agricultural research and experimentation.’”

Lamenting the eggplant

In the welcome remarks, Dr. Gil Saguiguit, Jr., Director of SEARCA, commented that biotechnology is frequently bombarded by claims that it is detrimental to health. Such claims led to the Supreme Court decision to stop field tests on Bt eggplant in 2015.

In his message, Dr. Eufemio Rasco of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) said that though the Philippines was the first to develop Bt eggplant, Filipinos may never benefit from it. He compared the Philippine case to Bangladesh. “After seven years of field and greenhouse trials in various locations, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to approve the commercial planting of Bt brinjal.” Bt Brinjal was approved for release on October 30, 2013.

Rasco lamented, “The Bangladeshi people trusted their scientists, we did not (trust ours). Let us not allow temporary setbacks to dampen our commitment to help farmers and consumers.” He hoped that the concerns of farmers, and the issue of food security, would not be overlooked in the elections, or by the incoming government officials. The benefits of biotech will be enjoyed by generations to come, he prophesied. 

The case of Bangladesh

Two Bangladeshi scientists spoke at the conference to share their experience with Bt Brinjal.

Dr. Gour Pada Das is the Country Coordinator of Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership in Bangladesh. Das shared an analysis of published reports about Bt Brinjal, in the hopes of determining how media perceived the new crop. He explained that the media was a powerful ally in promoting the acceptance of Bt Brinjal, and he shared their efforts in helping media practitioners understand the science.

Dr. ASM Mahbubur Rahman Khan is the Chief Scientific Officer and Head of the On-Farm Research Division at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI). He shared that two important stakeholders were satisfied with Bt Brinjal: farmers and housewives. Farmers were interested to grow the four varieties that were approved for release, and they were rewarded with lower production cost, higher yield, and higher gross margins. Housewives were happy to have healthy fruit.

Public fears

The open forum was moderated by Dr. Vivencio R. Mamaril, Program Director of Biotechnology Program Office at the Department of Agriculture. One question that arose was that of labeling. Detractors insist that biotech crops should be labeled as GMOs, and all products with ingredients that use biotech crops be appropriately labeled as well. But Das and Khan explained that Bangladeshi law makes no such requirement. Bt Brinjal, for example, is simply labeled “insect-free.”

Dr. Randy A. Hautea, Global Coordinator and Director of ISAAA’s Southeast Asia Center, explained that locally, biotech crops are sold in markets as simply “pesticide-free” or “insecticide-free.” He reasoned that labels should describe the product and its traits, providing information that matters to consumers. He further explained that almost all local tofu or “tokwa” is made from imported GM soybean. “What is the value of labeling it GM tokwa?”

Consequences of the Supreme Court ruling

Inevitably, Hautea was asked to comment on the Supreme Court ruling to stop field tests on Bt eggplant. He explained that ultimately, the case has not been decided, and that the court has entertained all motions for reconsideration.

As a representative from the DA, Mamaril quelled fears that other biotech crops would be affected by the Supreme Court ruling. He explained that previous approvals of other biotech crops were in no danger of being repealed, and farmers could continue planting them if they wished.

In closing, Hautea hoped the Philippines would learn from the experience of Bangladesh, identifying parallels in between the two countries’ developments in various fields of science and technology as well. He hoped that “we will share the same political will their government exhibited in the case of Bt Brinjal, so that we also put the weight of government behind a stronger push for science and technology in this country.”

With a new government in place, Filipino scientists can only hope for the best.