Bringing BT eggplant to Filipinos’ table

THE APPLICATION of biotechnology to improve food security has long been realized by scientists here in the country.

For example, many small farmers have long adopted biotech crops ever since GM corn has been commercialized in 2003. Of the estimated 1.2 million-hectare yellow corn area in the country, 800,000 hectares of these are GM corn, which are generally used for livestock feeds.

People do not need to look far into the future to see how this tech can improve agriculture and food production. Research has provided a solid background showing that crop biotechnology increases yield, strengthens disease and insect resistance, and creates tolerance in extreme environment conditions.

One of the most promising crops to be given a boost by biotechnology is the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) eggplant.

The eggplant is the leading vegetable crop in the Philippines in terms of area and volume of production. Small-scale farmers in many provinces grow eggplant and depend on it for their livelihood.

The eggplant is also a popular ingredient in Filipino dishes like the pinakbet, torta, sinigang, ensalada, and kare-kare. It is rich in dietary fiber and a good source of vitamins and minerals.

However, eggplant production suffers yield losses from pests, diseases and extreme environmental conditions.

The most destructive insect pest of eggplant in the Philippines and other Asian countries is the fruit and shoot borer (FSB). Eggplant yield losses from 51 to 73% due to FSB have been reported in the country.

By using biotechnology to introduce FSB-resistance in eggplant, farmers may benefit from high yields of good quality fruits. They also save on production and labor costs as less pesticide will be necessary to control the FSB.

The Bt eggplant produces a natural protein that makes it resistant to FSB. Once the FSB caterpillars feed on plant leaves, shoots and fruits, they stop eating and eventually die. The Bt protein in the biotech eggplant only affects FSB and does not affect humans, farm animals, and other non-target organisms. Studies have shown that the Bt eggplant is as safe as the ordinary eggplant and has the same nutritional compositions.

Before the Bt eggplant is approved for commercial use, scientists and regulators ensure that it passes through many tests and safety assessments. In the country, biosafety is evaluated in four stages: contained research in laboratories and screenhouses; small confined trials; multi-location field trials; and commercial release.

Davao City is being considered by scientists to be an area for Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) eggplant production once it is given a go in 2020 for market release.

Dr. Lourdes Taylo, scientist from the University of the Philippines Los Banos – Institute of Plant Breeding, said in an interview that adoption rate has been proven and tested in Mindanao where other genetically-modified crops like corn has been grown. (According to Monsanto, at least 70 percent of corn farmers in Mindanao are GM crop growers.)

She said the go signal by the government agencies concerned is to be given after stringent evaluation of bt eggplant as a product. The release of the GM crop for the market is governed by a joint department circular led by the country’s departments of science and technology , agriculture , environment and natural resources , health , and interior and local government.

The DOST-DA-DENR-DOH-DILG Joint Department Circular 1 No. 1, series of 2016, Taylo said, makes research guidelines more stringent but “it gives hope for the technology” after the Supreme Court banned development of genetically-modified products.

Taylo said that if they are able to address the concerns of the extensive joint circular, they will be given a go to bring to the market the bt eggplant.

She said that the process involves writing and submitting peer reviewed articles. Integral the approval also includes having robust scientific regulatory dossier that validates the concerns and issues raised by the five departments.

The scientist is optimistic that, under the Duterte administration, support will be given to this much needed technology that will address food security issues.

Last December 2010, the Davao City Government ordered UP Mindanao to uproot crops from an in-campus field testing site. The order was given by Mayor Sara Duterte because the university reportedly failed to conduct consultations with the city and barangay governments. The consultations are a requirement for the conduct of field tests for genetically modified crops.

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