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.

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.

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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.