CITY OF SAN FERNANDO—If there is anything that the people in the biotechnology sector have learned about the government process and public acceptance of genetically modified (GM) crops, is the fact that whole thing is never easy.
If the Bt corn, so far the only successfully commercialized GM crop in the country, had gone through the terrible hardship before being hailed as the most successful GM crop to have solely contributed to the corn sufficiency of the country today, so too must be the fate of Bt eggplant.
Efforts for Bt eggplant were almost shelved. But fortunately just last year, the Supreme Court reversed its decision that stopped the field testing of the controversial Bt eggplants and issuance of new permits on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
This development is seen by those in the GM crop sector as a spark of hope for Bt eggplant and its future.
In 2010, the Department of Agriculture has started multi-location field testing of GM eggplant known as the Philippine Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB) resistant eggplants (Bt brinjal) or Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant.
FSB insects are the pests that cause so much damage to eggplants. FSB or Leucinodes orbonalis is a moth species prevalent in Asia and Africa. The moths’ larvae feed inside the eggplant fruits making it unmarketable and unfit for human consumption and can cause some 50-75 percent loss of fruits.
Bt eggplant’s resistance to the FSB insect meant it is low impact on farming as farmers with Bt eggplants would almost need not use pesticide. It could be noted that non-Bt eggplant requires 60 to 80 applications of synthetic chemicals.
Bt, a common soil bacterium, produces a protein that paralyzes the larvae of some harmful insects, including EFSB.
“When ingested by the larvae of the target insect, the Bt protein is activated in the gut’s alkaline condition and punctures the mid-gut leaving the insect unable to eat. The insect dies within a few days,” according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Dr. Emiliana Bernardo, a member of the Department of Agriculture’s Scientific and Technical Review Panel said that Bt is present in the Philippine soil and had been in use for years without any harmful effects. As it comes from the earth itself, Bt is very natural, according to Dr. Bernardo. In 1901, Bt was discovered to have an insecticidal property. By 1950s, it became a well-known biological insecticide.
The prospects for Bt eggplant are simple: higher yield, less environmental impact on the use of chemicals and no toxic residue on the fruits but these benefits are often overshadowed by accusations of health risks from GM crops by those opposing any form GM crop cultivation.
Currently, Bangladeshi farmers are currently benefiting from Bt eggplant, with an 80 percent reduction in chemical pesticide application on the crop, according to a study by the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). It was also reported that in Bangladesh, around 6,000 farmers in 36 districts are cultivating not just one but four Bt Brinjal verities (BARI Bt (Uttara), BARI Bt (Kajla), BARI Bt (Nayontar) and ISD006 Bt BARI.)
In 2016 too, a field-level study of a team of scientists from the UPLB and Cornell University showed that Bt eggplant is safe for non-targeted insects.
Dr. Lourdes D. Taylo, Bt eggplant study leader from the University of the Philippines Los Baños on the science, safety, and the potential actual benefits of modern biotechnology was quoted on saying that Bt eggplant could bring benefits to communities such as higher yield and income, reduce chemical use, and improve environmental health.
"We believe that the Bt eggplant is a healthier and safer alternative solution against the relentless insect pest, the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB)," Taylo said.
Currently, farmers in Pangasinan and Davao have expressed support for Bt eggplant. All remains now is for the research, study and testing to continue. Surely, such efforts would be met with opposition by those who are against GM crops. But learning from the Bt corn experience, Bt eggplant will surely get enough momentum in the long run.