COMMENTARY: Boost for Bt ‘talong’

The Filipino scientific community received a rare boost on Tuesday with the reversal by the Supreme Court of its ban on Bt “talong” after an appeal by researchers at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.

Bt talong is a genetically modified vegetable, developed for insect resistance so that farmers will be able to grow it without spraying large amounts of toxic pesticide. However, because of its superstition about all things “GMO,” the international group Greenpeace opposed Bt talong despite the crop’s pesticide-reducing approach.

Bt talong field trials were conducted by scientists based at UP Los Baños between 2010 and 2012. Activists from Greenpeace attacked and destroyed some of the plants in 2011, although they apparently targeted the wrong crop by mistake. Greenpeace also applied for and received a Writ of Kalikasan, which was upheld by the Supreme Court last December.

As I wrote in the Inquirer at that time, the Supreme Court’s initial decision was a “dark day for science” (“Dark day for science,” Opinion, 12/15/15). So with the reversal of that decision, it feels like a new day is dawning: Public sector biotechnology, which can clearly make agriculture more environmentally sustainable, has a future in the Philippines, after all. Let us together celebrate that.

This decision by the Supreme Court comes hard on the heels of a new paper, published in a prestigious scientific journal, that proved conclusively that Bt talong is virtually 100-percent effective in controlling the main pest, the devastating fruit and shoot borer caterpillar.

Bt talong produces a protein that is harmless to humans but causes caterpillars to cease feeding. Organic growers already use Bt protein as a spray, but it is far more effective and just as safe when produced by the plant.

Talong, known internationally as eggplant, is an important vegetable crop in the Philippines, as elsewhere in Asia. Because the fruit and shoot borer pest is so destructive, farmers are forced to spray toxic insecticides up to 70 times during the growing season to prevent insect damage and make the crop marketable.

The insecticides used by vegetable farmers on eggplant include profenofos, triazophos, chlorpyrifos, cypermethrin and malathion. Residues from their application have been found in both the soil of eggplant farms and in harvested fruits, so by eating conventional talong, consumers are exposed to potentially toxic chemicals.

Farmers and farm workers have complained of ailments such as skin irritation, redness of the eyes, muscle pains and headaches linked to exposure to these pesticides. The chemical runoff can also harm the environment, particularly waterways and other fragile ecological areas.

This latest scientific paper shows conclusively that Greenpeace was wrong, and that the Supreme Court is historically correct to recognize the mistake and reverse its decision. I hope the verdict is quickly acted upon, because every day that goes by without Bt talong adoption, more pesticides are unnecessarily being sprayed and more consumers and farmers are exposed to insecticide residues.

The way forward is already being shown in Bangladesh. The same Bt eggplant is now under wide cultivation by small farmers in that country. Farmers are free to share and save the genetically improved seeds, which have been developed in the public sector and released by the government agricultural research agency.

Preliminary data from Bangladesh show that Bt eggplant farmers in that country have cut insecticide use by 80 percent or more, dramatically reducing environmental damage and improving farmers’ health. It also improves livelihoods as smallholder farmers spend less on chemicals and so get more profit from their crop.

The Supreme Court’s reversal of its Bt talong ban shows encouragingly that antiscience misinformation does not always win the day. It will encourage scientists and farmers everywhere who want to use new technology to produce healthier crops at less cost to our fragile environment.

–Written by Mark Lynas, Philippine Daily Inquirer.  See article link here.

Mark Lynas is a British environmentalist, writer and visiting fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University.

Monsanto, UP group promote sustainable agriculture

Monsanto Philippines, together with the University of the Philippines League of Agricultural Biotechnology Students (UP-LABS), recently led a student outreach activity in Muntinlupa City to broaden young people’s awareness on the role of modern agriculture in feeding the country’s growing population.

UP-LABS members performed an on-stage adaptation of the published children’s book Lina’s Town Rises Again, inspired by the tale of triumph of a lady corn farmer in Sultan Kudarat.

Almost 50 grade school students and teachers from the Alabang Elementary School watched the live performance at the Bulwagang Haribon, Insular Life Corporate Centre in Muntinlupa City.

Monsanto Corporate Engagement Lead Charina Garrido-Ocampo shared that the activity was meant to help young students gain a basic understanding of the food value chain, the different challenges to food sufficiency, and the role of modern science in keeping up to the growing demand for food.

She also highlighted the importance of engaging the next generation for the future of agriculture. “Today’s youth plays a critical role in contributing creative ideas and actions to address real-world issues such as food security. Monsanto’s collaboration with UP-LABS demonstrates our efforts to work with different stakeholder, including the young, to promote sustainable agriculture,” Ocampo said.

Meanwhile, UP-LABS President Jakov Abellido hopes that the activity will be able to correct the stereotypes surrounding agriculture as a low-income and “uncool” profession, and in turn, attract them to take agricultural science.

“Currently, the image of agriculture among the younger population remains ‘uncool’. Rapid urbanization and rural-urban migration continue to become major factors causing the disinterest in agriculture among young people. Because of this declining interest, reaching out and educating them is a key step in ensuring our youth’s continued involvement in the farming sector,” Abellido said.

Monsanto is committed to expanding the discussion on the importance of sustainable agriculture in schools and colleges across the country. Since 2012, Monsanto has already reached out to more than 10,000 students in Quezon City, Iloilo, Davao, General Santos and Cagayan through their activities geared towards making young minds interested in agriculture.

-Published in The Standard.  See article link here.

Bt talong case: Not quite a total victory but at least the science can go on

After so much anguish and frustration, this week’s decision of the Supreme Court (SC) reversing itself on the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) talong case came as a most welcome surprise to farmers and livestock raisers, the public regulators, and the science community.

Voting previously 12 versus zero, with three justices not participating, who would have thought that only six months later, eventually the same court would unanimously SET ASIDE its permanent injunction on the conduct of field tests of eggplant bioengineered to resist insect pests.

Instead, the High Court dismissed the petition for Writ of Continuing Mandamus and the Writ of Kalikasan and prayer for issuance of a temporary environmental protection order (TEPO) filed by Greenpeace and other parties on the ground of mootness.

The Court agreed with the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) [the technology developer], UP Los Baños Foundation, Inc. (UPLBFI) and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) [the not-for-profit technology partners], the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) [the technology regulators], and Croplife (industry) that the case should have been dismissed in the first place for mootness in view of the completion of the field tests and termination of the biosafety permits. The court injunction was pointless because there were nothing to stop.

The Court further admitted it should have not resolved the case on its merits precisely due to its mootness and should not have acted on the constitutional question, i.e. whether the DA Administrative Order (AO) 8-2002 was constitutional, as this matter was only collaterally raised.

Not quite a total victory for the farmers and science but at least for now there is no impediment for the research to go on, for Filipino farmers to keep on planting high-yielding, very profitable Bt corn hybrids and for the feed industry to import genetically modified (GM) soybean meal to sustain the local poultry and livestock sector.

Results of the Bt Talong Field Tests

Actually the field tests confirmed that the technology works very well in farmers’ fields. The results of the tests were published by Desiree M. Hautea and her colleagues from UPLB and Cornell University in June, 2016 in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed, free access, on-line publication, reputedly the largest scientific journal of its kind in terms of numbers of papers published each year.

The trials compared five UPLB-Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB)-bred eggplant varieties with the inserted Bt gene from Bacillus thuringiensis versus their conventional non-GM, isogenic counterparts (or controls). They were conducted over three growing seasons in Pangasinan (the country’s leading eggplant producer, with about 30 percent of total production). The test fields were not sprayed with insecticides to control eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB) throughout the entire season.

The expression of Bt cry1Ac protein which confers insect resistance to EFSB was found to gradually increase from the seedling stage to the mature fruiting stage. This was the reverse of the phenomenon reported in Bt cotton. Moreover, the concentrations of the insecticidal proteins were highest in the shoots and fruits (where they are needed) and less in the stems and roots.

The Bt and non-Bt varieties were compared based on three parameters: percent insect-damaged shoots, percent insect-damaged fruits and number of insect larvae in fruits. In all these measures the Bt varieties were significantly much better than the non-GM controls.

In Trial 2 conducted during the regular eggplant planting season in Pangasinan when pest pressure was most severe, the conventional non-Bt varieties had 42 percent damaged shoots, 93 percent damaged fruits and 16 larvae per plot per harvest. The Bt varieties on the other hand were practically free from damage i.e. less than one percent shoot damage, less than two percent fruit damage and less than one larva per plot per harvest. This is almost 100 percent control without application of insecticide against EFSB.

Moreover, the adult moths reared from larvae collected from Bt plants did not produce viable eggs or offsprings.

In all field trial locations, there also was no evidence that the Bt talong caused harm or had any negative impact on the populations of non-target species, particularly beneficial arthropod species such as predators, pollinators and decomposers.

These results affirm the general environmental safety of the Cry1Ac protein and its specificity only to target species.

The Next Steps

With the field tests out of the way, confirming that Bt varieties are more than adequately protected from the dreaded eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB) insect, and that there is no evidence of collateral damage on non-target species, the technology proponents must now submit further evidence on the food and feed safety of the product.

However, since the cry1Ac gene is the same genetic event incorporated in GM soybean and GM cotton, both of which have received regulatory approval for direct use as food and feed and for processing by Philippine authorities and biosafety regulators in many developed and developing countries, the process should not take very long.

As a last requirement as a pest-protected plant, the Bt talong must be duly registered with the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA).

Nobel laureates Say yes to GMOs

The High court made it clear that it did not rule on the merits of the case i.e. whether the prospective cultivation of Bt talong will prejudice the right of Filipinos to a balanced and healthful ecology. That will be up to Greenpeace and other GMO oppositors to return to the Courts to plead their case.

But this time along the new regulatory framework detailed in Joint Department Circular 01-2016 signed by DA, DOST, DENR, the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) which superseded the previous DA AO 08-2002 which has been declared null and void by the SC.

Although there are still skeptics who refuse to recognize the potential value to mankind of GMO technology, the weight of scientific consensus in favor of GMO technology is abundantly clear from the published statements of the world’s leading academies of science and responsible development agencies.

Among those expressing support for GMOs are: the World Health organization (WHO-UN), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); the American Medical Association (AMA); the European Commission (EC); the National Academies of Sciences (NAS-USA); the Royal Society (UK); the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS); the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and Mexican National Academies of Sciences, including our very own, National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST-Philippines).

The latest to come out in full support for GMOs in agriculture were 107 Nobel laureates (out of 296 living recipients) who in their press release of June 2016 had these to say:

. . . Organizations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts (UN FAO: need to double food, feed and fiber production by 2050) and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impact, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and projects.

. . . We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against “GMOs” and Golden Rice in particular.

***

Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback , email eqjavier@yahoo.com.

–Published in Manila Bulletin.  See article link here.

Filipino scientists, regulators look into GMO perceptions

GENETICALLY modified organisms (GMOs) have been controversial, with a number of people around the world saying they have negative impacts to the environment, can cause “genetic pollution” and are not good for human consumption.

Yet, as of June 30, more than 110 Nobel laureates and over 3,500 scientists all over the world have signed a letter addressing and urging Greenpeace International “to reexamine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology; recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies; and abandon their campaign against GMOs, in general, and Golden Rice, in particular.”

According to the World Food Program (WFP), about one out of nine people in the world do not have enough food to live a healthy life. This amounts to 795 million people in the world who are hungry, most of who come from developing countries, where 12.9 percent of the total population lack food to eat.

Furthermore, vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a public-health problem. A World Health Organization (WHO) data say an estimated 250 million preschool children suffer from VAD together with pregnant women, with 5 percent of this number leads to death every year for children within 12 months of losing their sight.

In the case of the Philippines, it has the highest poverty incidence among its Association of Southeast Asian Nations peers. With a national poverty of 25.8 percent, according to World Bank data, the Philippines has a lot of work to do to alleviate poverty and address issues of public health, such as VAD.

This is where GMO, such as the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, Bt talong (eggplant) and Golden Rice, enters as a solution to relieve and, eventually, end the battle against VAD and hunger; and give the farmers a chance to provide food while farming sustainably and efficiently without the threat of having shortage or attacks of insects that kill their crops, GMO experts and advocates say.

GMO issue
“The real debate is safety,” said Benigno Peczon, chairman of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines Inc. in an interview with the BusinessMirror. “We already have overwhelming evidence for 20 years’ use that they are safe,” he emphasized.

In his presentation at the forum on GM Crops: Public Perception and Trade Regulation Practices held at the University of the Philippines Law Center in Quezon City, Peczon discussed how the applications of modern biotechnology in the agriculture area has benefited farmers.

Bt corn has been planted in the Philippines for more than 14 years now, or since 2002, in more than 800,000 hectares by farmers.

“In traditional plant breeding, related plants are interbred until the desired trait emerges,” Peczon said, noting that it costs time and effort to do this kind of technique, where they shuffle and crossbreed recurrent parent plant with desirable characteristics, such as high yield and adaptation.

For Peczon, one of the main objectives in agriculture is to ensure that only the desired plant grows. He added, “as far as the farmers are concerned, anything that competes with the crop of choice is undesirable, getting rid of weeds is not easy and can be costly.”

Bt corn in the Philippines
Leonardo Gonzales, founding president and chairman of Sikpa/Strive Inc., said at the same forum in his lecture, entitled “Socioeconomic Impact Assessment: The Bt Corn Experience,” Bt is “a naturally occurring soil-borne bacterium where it produces crystal like proteins that selectively kill specific groups of insects.”

The Bt corn is a GMO which, through genetic engineering, the Bt gene was incorporated in the corn plant’s DNA to enhance its resistance against insect attacks, such as the Asiatic corn borer. This method helped many farmers produce corn resistant to insects and saved them money from using pesticides.

“Bt corn required 54-percent less pesticides than ordinary hybrid [OH] corn in order to produce the same amount of corn grain from 2003 to 2011,”Gonzales said.

For Gonzales, Bt corn has had other empirical findings. One of which is on fertilizer use.

He said, “Bt corn adopters, on the average, were 9-percent more efficient in the use of fertilizer than ordinary hybrid corn-seed users.” This, after more than 10 years of planting the GMO plant, has indicated positive environmental impacts among corn producers.

Another finding, according to Gonzales, was that the average yield advantage of Bt corn over OH corn, was 19 percent and a cost advantage of 10 percent compared to OH corn, with a 42 percent higher return on investment from 2003 to 2011.

Last, Bt corn consistently outperformed OH corn by 29 percent in meeting food and poverty thresholds in the same timeframe.

“Technological innovations, like the GM products, are sustainable if they provide socioeconomic impacts to society. They are either compliant with the basic requirements of the natural resources, and if it does not comply with that, it will die a natural death,” Gonzales said.

He added, “We believe in the hypothesis that in the long term, the role of new technology is to lower your cost so that you will become efficient in the production of that commodity.” To be concluded

-Written by Stephanie Tumampos, BusinessMirror.  See article link here.

Six botanical pesticides being developed

RESEARCHERS from the Central Luzon State University have found six plants possessing botanical pesticide or biopesticide properties, which can be an alternative to commercial pesticides.

A biopesticide is a substance derived from plants capable of protecting selected crops against certain diseases and pests.

The team of researchers, led by program leader Dr. Annie Melinda Paz-Alberto of the Institute of Climate Change and Environmental Management, has developed six biopesticides from plants collected in Central Luzon provinces—Nueva Ecija, Bataan and Aurora.

However, the biopesticides have to be further studied, field tested and patented prior to its promotion to farmers.

Plant samples were collected from the forests in identified sites. They were later screened to determine whether they have potential as biopesticide and processed into liquid biopesticide.

Dr. Ronaldo Alberto, the project focal person, explained that the biopesticides extracted could not be applied to crops as a preventive or curative measure. However, the preventive approach is more effective based on their microplot trials on selected crops, like tomato, pepper, bitter gourd and onion.

The screening of indigenous plants as sources of biopesticides for vegetables, such as in lettuce, cabbage, tomato and sugarcane, is being done in Northern Mindanao. So far, 11 plant species with pesticidal properties have been collected and are undergoing tests to find out which can be used as biopesticides.

The biopesticides were developed under the Biodiversity Industry Strategic S&T Program of Philippine Council of Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology.

It hopes to address the challenges in biodiversity through the assessment and conservation of critical biological diversity for ecosystem services and development of biodiversity-based products, such as biopesticides, nutraceuticals, food and novel products.

S&T Media Service

-Published in BusinessMirror.  See article link here.

 

DOST opens door to public on S&T Week

The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) will open its doors to the public during the celebration of the 2016 National Science and Technology Week (NSTW), dubbed as “Juan Science, One Nation,” from July 25 to 29.

This year’s NSTW will be celebrated simultaneously in all DOST regional offices and in the four major science hubs in Bicutan, Taguig City; Quezon City; Manila; and Los Baños, Laguna.

Newly installed Science Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña will lead the annual NSTW activities at the DOST Complex in Bicutan, Taguig City, as the celebration kicks off on July 25. The event will be de la Peña’s first major science and technology (S&T) activity upon his assumption to office under the administration of President Duterte.

“This is the first time that the DOST will be doing a simultaneous celebration not only in Manila, but in the different regions of the country,” de la Peña explained. “We hope to sustain the enthusiasm on science and technology created by the past administration and work on what remains to be resolved for the benefit of even those who are on the outskirts of development.”

The 2016 NSTW will feature several technology open houses, symposia, scientific forums, technology fairs, film showings, scientific career talks and technology launches, among others.

“For those who are in Metro Manila,” de la Peña added, “you can choose to visit our exhibits on disaster preparedness, weather and education in Pagasa [Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration], Phivolcs [Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology] and Philippine Science High School in Quezon City; and in SM MOA [Mall of Asia], where the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, and the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development will feature health- and nutrition-related forums and other fun activities.”

On the other hand, DOST’s main office in Taguig has prepared numerous treats for those who will be visiting the NSTW celebration. Among the activities lined up are food tasting on DOST-assisted products called Future Flavors; technology forums on livelihood; career talks; product launches; science film showings; and many more.

The Los Baños Science Community will hold open houses on research and development facilities, and testing laboratories on forest products at the Forest Products Research and Development Institute.

Moreover, technologies on agri-aqua sector will be on display on the S&T exhibits of the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development.

For those in provinces, DOST regional offices have prepared various exciting activities that will surely entice everyone to join the celebration.

The NSTW is celebrated every third week of July as mandated by Proclamation 169 of 1993. It aims to recognize the contribution of S&T in the development of the country and garner support from public and private institutions for its sustainable development.

For more information, please visit www.nstw.dost.gov.ph and NSTW Facebook page at 2016NSTW or e-mail 2016nstw@gmail.com.

-Published in BusinessMirror.  See article link here.