LAST September, the Philippine Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier decision (it rendered in May 2013) ordering the University of the Philippines Los Baños Foundation (UPLBFI), the University of the Philippines itself, UP Los Baños (UPLB), the Department of Agriculture (DA), and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to “permanently cease and desist from further conducting BT Talong field trials.”
BT or Bt in “Bt (or BT) Talong” is not the abbreviation for “biotech.”
The case arose when Europe-based Greenpeace, which is known to be an international NGO fighting to protect the environment to the most militant point of ramming Japanese whaling ships, and also claims to be supported only by individual donors and never by corporate and industrial financiers, opposed the biotech efforts of UP Los Baños scientists and farmers, together with the Department of Agriculture, with the blessings of the DENR, to develop a breed of eggplant that can withstand that plant’s deadliest enemy: the fruit and shoot borer or FSB.
Dr. Lourdes D. Taylo—Crop Protection – Entomology expert of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) whose home in academe is the Institute of Plant Breeding in the College of Agriculture of UP Los Baños—tells us that Bt is short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that defeats the FSB. The Bt bacterium is a naturally occurring, non-pathogenic (or non disease-causing) soil bacterium. In fact, Dr. Taylo says, Bt is even commercially prepared as a microbial formulation used by organic farm owners.
The Filipinos of UPLB, the UP and the Agriculture department had found a way of genetically modifying eggplants by introducing the gene of the bacterium into the eggplant to make the crop resistant to the FSB. “We have shown that Bt eggplant is effective against the borer and safe to other insects (including friendly insects) except other borers feeding on eggplant,” Dr. Taylo adds.
Their field-testing is what Greenpeace, cheered on by the pesticide industry, has stopped.
The pesticide industry is a player in this because with eggplant made resistant to the FSB, insecticides will no longer be used against the evil borer.
Dr. Taylo explains that “FSB, a worm, eats the young and tender tissues of the plant causing wilting and drying up of shoots. It also feeds on the flowers causing flower drop and malformed fruits. But the most serious damage on the plant is on the fruits where the worm bores and leaves feeding tunnels and excreta. As a result, damaged fruits or ‘rejects’ are just fed to farm animals and considered as loss to the farmer.”
The tool now used against FSB is insecticide. But, continues Dr. Taylo, “weekly spraying could result in a significant 60 percent yield loss while spraying twice a week reduces yield loss to 40 percent. In reality, farmers are dependent on chemical spray as other methods of control are ineffective and laborious. They spray a lot, more than once a week especially at times when the eggplant is expensive to protect the crop. In areas where pest pressure is high, application of insecticides can be done twice a day.
“Imagine a 6-7 productive months of eggplants harvested twice a week and you can calculate the volume of pesticide spray used by farmers and the danger to the health of farm workers and their families (i.e., respiratory illnesses and skin diseases), to the environment due to contamination of water table and to us consumers, as a result of pesticide residues among the harvests.”
The Filipinos have appealed to the justices of the Supreme Court. And many farmers’ groups—who say they were never consulted on the case—have petitioned the High Court to allow them to speak in the next hearings on this case.
Meanwhile, on the question “Is Bt Eggplant safe to eat?” our vote is Yes, with Dr. Taylo and against Greenpeace’s fears that the GMO Bt Talong is unsafe to consumers and to the environment.
How can the naturally occurring and non-pathogenic Bt be more harmful than the chemical insecticides now sprayed on the eggplants?