Fil-Am science group lauds restart of Bt eggplant testing

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The Philippine American Academy of Science and Engineering (PAASE) welcomed the prompt continuation of research and development and field-testing of Bt talong (eggplant) in the Philippines, following the government’s enactment of a joint circular on the use of modern biotechnology.

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“We commit to working with the Philippine government, universities, and the public, if called for, in providing expert advice and recommendations on the various facets of the development and use of Bt talong in the Philippines,” said Joel Cuello of the University of Arizona.

PAASE is an international organization of scientists and engineers of Philippine descent—based in the Philippines, the United States or elsewhere—who have distinguished themselves in scholarly and research-related activities.

In March, after the Supreme Court issued an injunction in December 2015 against the continued development of Bt talong and temporarily banned new applications for genetically modified organisms, the Department of Agriculture (DA), along with the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR); Health (DOH); Science and Technology (DOST); and Interior and Local Government (DILG) crafted a joint department circular that provided guidelines for the propagation and sale of biotechnology seeds in the country.

With the signing of the JDC, PAASE called on Philippine government leaders, farmers, academics, scientists, engineers, the private sector, journalists, students and the general public to acknowledge that the development and field testing of Bt talong is an urgent imperative to provide an effective, safe and sustainable solution to the economically and environmentally ruinous problems currently facing Filipino eggplant farmers.

They also called on the Mobilize the Filipino science and technology community to launch a nationwide educational and extension program to disseminate accurate scientific facts and information on Bt talong, and to combat any misinformation and disinformation on the subject.

PAASE said they are ready to work with Filipino eggplant farmers to build scientific and technical capacity best suited to their circumstances to promote sustainable and cost-effective integrated cultivation management practices.

PAASE Eggplant, the leading vegetable crop in the country in terms of both volume and area of production, is a valuable source of income for Filipino farmers. Eggplant production in the Philippines covers approximately 22,000 hectares, yielding a volume of about 220,000 metric tons annually, valued at about P2.6 billion.

However, the emergence of the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) as a major pest of eggplant in the country has been catastrophic to both farm productivity and farmers’ income, and has imperiled food security in vast areas heavily invested in the crop. Indeed, an estimated 51 to 73 percent of the crop is lost when no form of pest control is provided.

Such potential massive production losses prompt the liberal application of 60 to 80 pesticide sprays during a planting season, costing farmers about P28,000 per hectare for pesticides, representing 29 percent of total production costs.

Consequently, eggplant products become not only laced with pesticides, but their price also jumps from ordinarily about P45 per kilo to P70 per kilo—an unaffordable price to most urban low-income consumers.

Given the lack of effective pest-control approaches against FSB available to Filipino eggplant farmers, the development of an alternative technology in the form of Bt talong—devoid of the established risks to humans, farm animals and other non-target organisms—is seen as a promising long-term solution.

Growing Bt talong is expected to significantly increase agricultural productivity in areas severely affected by FSB, and is projected to raise farmers’ income by about P50,000 per hectare.

Natural insecticide
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil-dwelling bacterium that has been used to control insect pests since the 1920s. Its spores and crystalline insecticidal proteins are used in formulations marketed as organic pesticides under trade names such as DiPel, Thuricide, Costar, Bio-Trol and BioProtec to kill mosquito larvae and to control caterpillars of moths and butterflies, which destroy many crops and ornamental plants.

Bt spray has been used for over 50 years and organic farmers consider Bt innocuous. It occurs naturally in the gut of some caterpillars, on leaf surfaces and in aquatic environments and it has been found also in animal feces, insect-rich environments, flourmills and grain-storage facilities.

Numerous safety studies have been conducted on Bt spray formulations and Bt toxins produced in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) showing that Bt toxin is nontoxic to humans and non-target animals.

Animal toxicology studies confirmed these results since test animals fed with high concentrations of Bt formulations from GMOs, or even the GMO crops themselves, exhibited no adverse reactions nor showed abnormalities in their gut when examined under the microscope.

The results from these studies have enabled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization to conclude that consumption of GMOs that produce Bt toxins is safe and unlikely to pose a health hazard to humans and non-target animals owing to the specificity of the insecticidal activity of Bt toxin to specific arthropods.
 
Improved guidelines
Earlier, Agriculture Undersecretary Atty. Dennis Guerrero said that the overhauled GMO guidelines had been made stringent and transparent, saying that environment safety assessment procedures will be crosschecked by the five agencies before the local cultivation of GM crops.

The joint administrative order was based on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.

It was adopted in January 2000 and entered into force in September 2003.

“As the first country in the Asian region to allow the propagation and commercialization of GM crops in 2002, the GM guidelines will further strengthen biotechnology’s role in the country’s agriculture sector and address food security concerns in the immediate future while at the same time ensuring the environment and the health of people plants and animals are protected,” Guerrero said.

The government held several consultations following the order issued by the High Court which nullified all importations, applications, testing and commercialization of plants and plant products derived from the use of modern biotechnology.

The SC earlier said DA order 08-2002 failed to meet the minimum requirements for safety under EO 514, which requires a more transparent, meaningful and participatory public consultation on the conduct of field trials beyond the posting and publication of notices, consultations with some residents and government officials, and submission of written assessment and no socio-economic consideration.

“The new rules have tightened environmental scrutiny before biosafety permits are issued, addressing one of the loopholes the Supreme Court cited when it voided the old rules, in place since 2002,” he added.

Under the new guidelines, there will be Biosafety Committees tasked to review applications for field-testing and cultivation.

The DOST-Biosafety Committee (DOST-BC) was mandated to evaluate applications for contained use and confined test of regulated articles, while the DA-Biosafety Committee (DA-BC) will evaluate applications for field trial, commercial propagation and transboundary movement of regulated articles in accordance with this Circular.

DA-BC will also evaluate the independent reports as well as socio-economic, ethical and cultural considerations.

Meanwhile, the DENR-Biosafety Committee (DENR-BC) shall lead in evaluating environmental risks and impacts of regulated articles for field trial, commercial propagation, and direct use of living modified organisms in accordance with this Circular.

DOH-Biosafety Committee (DOH-BC), on the other hand, shall lead in the evaluation of health impacts of regulated articles for field trial, commercial propagation, and direct use of living modified organisms in accordance with the circular.

“The DA is now tasked to broaden membership in the Scientific and Technical Review Panel to accommodate expertise in the evaluation of the potential risks of regulated articles to the environment and human health,” Guerrero said.

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