Philippine court lifts ban on GM eggplant, now what?

[MANILA] On 26 July, the Philippine Supreme Court reversed its December 2015 decision to stop the field testing, propagation, commercialisation and importation of genetically modified (GM) foods, including the controversial Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant. The reversal raises several questions: Will the GM eggplant soon be available on the market? How does this affect food labelling of GM foods? And how does the high court’s vacillation affect the morale of local scientists? Saturnina Halos, chair of the Department of Agriculture’s biotechnology advisory team, clarifies that “the availability of the GM eggplant will depend on whether the University of the Philippines Los Baños has undertaken all the necessary studies to submit data on these considerations”.

There’s no substantial difference between genetically engineered and conventionally bred food crops.

–Peter Davies, Cornell University

She notes the GM eggplant has yet to undergo another review process under the new regulatory scheme where the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Health are active participants. For Peter Davies, international professor of plant biology at Cornell University in the US, no labelling is needed “as every reputable scientific body worldwide has declared there’s no substantial difference between genetically engineered and conventionally bred food crops”. “However, it is my opinion that as Bt eggplant is healthier for the customer, being free of pesticides, and for the farmers who no longer need to spray pesticides daily, a label such as ‘wonderful pesticide-free talong (eggplant)’ would be appropriate,” Davies says. Davies believes “the reversal is a great morale booster for plant scientists worldwide, especially in the Philippines, as it justifies their efforts to produce healthier pesticide-free food for consumers while improving the livelihood of farmers and the environment in which they work”. Halos, however, also sees the downside of the recent turn of events: “Many scientists feel they wasted emotional investment in the case. They feel good about the reversal yet they find the case to be a waste of effort and time.”

-Written by Katharina Schmidt in SciDev.net.  See article link here.

Bt talong technology to proceed as SC reverses own ruling

The Supreme Court has reversed its ruling that prevented the field testing of the genetically engineered Bt talong.

In a unanimous decision, the high court granted the motions for reconsideration filed by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications Inc., Environmental Management Bureau, Crop Life Philippines, University of the Philippines Los Baños Foundation and University of the Philippines.

The court agreed that “the case should have been dismissed for mootness” since the Bt talong field trials have been completed and terminated and the biosafety permits issued by the Bureau of Plant Industry have already expired. Thus, these “effectively negated the need for the reliefs sought by respondents [Greenpeace Southeast Asia (Philippines) and Magsasaka at Siyentipiko sa Pagpapaunlad ng Agrikultura] as there was no longer any field test to stop.”

According to the SC, “an action is considered moot when it no longer presents a justiciable controversy because the issues have become academic or when the subject matter has been resolved,” and it is “not empowered to decide moot questions or abstract propositions, or to declare principles or riles of law which cannot affect the result as to the thing in issue in the case before it.”

It added that the completion and termination of the field tests would not automatically lead to the commercial propagation of Bt talong as three stages are still needed before genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be made available in the market. The Bt talong technology never went beyond the field testing phase.

“Thus, there are no guaranteed after-effects to the already concluded Bt talong field trials that demands an adjudication from which the public may perceivably benefit. Any future threat to the right of herein respondents or the public in general to a healthful and balanced ecology is therefore more imagined than real.”

In December 2015, the high tribunal ordered that field trials of Bt talong be permanently stopped following the nullification of the Department of Agriculture Administrative Order (DAO) No. 08-2002. The DA document, which regulates the use of GMOs, was found insufficient in enforcing biosafety protocols. Along with the suspension of Bt talong trials, the SC also temporarily halted any application for field testing, contained use, propagation and importation of GMOs. The decision was opposed by farmers and scientists.

Bt talong, developed through biotechnology, can increase productivity in areas affected by eggplant pests known as fruit and shoot borers without the use of chemical pesticides.

–Published at Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of the Philippines website.  See article link here.

UP law professors point out need for biotech communicators

UP law professors point out need for biotech communicators

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Law professors from the University of the Philippines Law Center-Institute of International Legal Studies (IILS) shared their assessment on Bt talong and GMOsin the Philippines during their special Agriculture and Development Seminar Series (ADSS) seminars for the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) on July 20, 2016, at SEARCA, College, Laguna.

IILS Officer-In-Charge Atty. Edgardo Carlo L. Vistan II shared his interpretation of the December 8, 2015 Supreme Court decision on banning the Bt talong field trials and the nullification of the Department of Agriculture (DA) Administrative Order No. 8 which served as guidelines for the regulation of GM plants in the country. Law Education Specialist Atty. Celeste Ruth Cembrano Mallari presented issues in international trade ofGM crops and cited the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures of the World Trade Organization and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Both law experts, recognizing the benefits and potentials of biotech, expressed the need for effective science communicators particularly in advancing the importance and value of biotech research and products to policymakers and key decision makers.

On July 26, the Supreme Court reversed its December 2015 decision on the Bt talong case, stating the mootness of the case, with the field trials having been already completed in 2012.

For more information about biotech developments in the Philippines, visit the website of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture – Biotechnology Information Center. (Maria Monina Cecilia A. Villena and Sophia M. Mercado)


For more information, please contact:

SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center
College 4031, Laguna, PHILIPPINES
Telephone no.: (+63-49) 536 2290 ext 405/169/135
Fax no.: (+63-49) 536 4105

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.

***

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.

Philippine American Academy of Science and Engineering calls for resumption of Bt eggplant research

Philippine American Academy of Science and Engineering calls for resumption of Bt eggplant research

In a statement, the Philippine American Academy of Science and Engineering (PAASE) expressed strong support for the continuation of research and development and field testing of Bt eggplant in the Philippines, following the Supreme Court order halting its field testing last December 2015. Under the newbiosafety guidelines of the Philippines signed by five government departments (Joint Department Circular No. 1, Series of 2016, titled Rules and Regulations for the Research and Development, Handling and Use, Transboundary Movement, Release into the Environment, and Management of Genetically-Modified Plant and Plant Products Derived from the Use of Modern Biotechnology), PAASE urged “all parties involved to take prompt and responsible actions…to implement the resumption and continuation of said research.”

Elaborating Bt eggplant and GM technology’s human, animal and environmental safety, and its potential contribution to food security in its 22-page statement, PAASE urged various stakeholders to mobilize Filipino S&T and partner with eggplant farmers “to build scientific and technological capacity best suited to their circumstances.” They also committed to “working with the Philippine government, universities and the public in providing expert advice and recommendations on the various facets of the development and use of Bt talong in the Philippines.”

PAASE is an international organization of scientists and engineers who have distinguished themselves in scholarly and research-related activities and who are of Philippine descent — based in the Philippines, the United States or elsewhere. The academy promotes the advancement of science, engineering and technology; encourages collaborative efforts among scientists and engineers; and supports national inclusive growth and development through innovation in science and technology. A full copy of their statement can be downloaded here.

For more information about biotech developments in the Philippines, visit the website of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture – Biotechnology Information Center. (Maria Monina Cecilia A. Villena and Sophia M. Mercado)


For more information, please contact:

SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center
College 4031, Laguna, PHILIPPINES
Telephone no.: (+63-49) 536 2290 ext 405/169/135
Fax no.: (+63-49) 536 4105

Fil-Am science group lauds restart of Bt eggplant testing

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.

“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.

–Written by by James Konstantin Galvez, Manila Times.  See article link here.

Scientists back calls to revive crop biotechnology

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine American Academy of Science and Engineering (PAASE) has joined the growing calls for the resumption of development and field testing of genetically modified eggplant in the country to boost crop productivity.

Biotechnology is a revolutionary tool that is transforming the agricultural sector. Crops developed by genetic engineering can not only be used to enhance yields and nutritional quality but also to safeguard crops against disease.

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 PhP 2.6 billion.

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.

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 on 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 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 that chemical pesticides typically pose – becomes both a desirable and an urgent imperative.

PAASE, an international organization of scientists and engineers who have distinguished themselves research-related activities and who are of Philippine descent – based in the Philippines, US or elsewhere, said the use of biotechnology would significantly increase agricultural productivity in areas severely affected by FSB, and i raise farmers’ income by about P50,000 per hectare.

The development of Bt talong cultivars directly supports the country’s aspiration for inclusive growth and poverty reduction, said PAASE, which promotes the advance cement of science, engineering and technology.

“Results from numerous biosafety and toxicological studies have allowed the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to conclude that the consumption of genetically modified (GM) farm products which produce Bt toxins is safe and unlikely to pose health hazards to humans and non-target animals owing to the specificity of the insecticidal activity of Bt toxin to specific arthropods,” PAASE noted.

In Asia, Bangladesh has already approved the commercial planting of Bt talong, and its government has been providing seeds to farmers on a royalty-free basis since 2013. In India,

The Philippines, on the other hand, was the first country in Asia to approve the commercial cultivation of GMO corn for food and animal feed in 2002.

Today, around 70 percent of the corn planted in the Philippines is GMO. The Philippines has also been importing GMO crops, particularly soybeans and cotton, for more than a decade.

“Given, however, that extensive research studies have provided scientific evidence for the relative safety of Bt-derived insecticidal proteins in humans and animals – and considering the projected significant positive impact of Bt talong on the Philippines’ food security and farmers’ incomes – the resumption and continuation of the research and development and field-testing of Bt talong in the Philippines with a view to generating the necessary empirical data to evaluate its environmental biosafety specifically in the Philippines is fully justified and should be urgently prioritized,” PAASE said.

“Analysis of the relevant technology-transfer arrangements, the patent and plant-variety protection on Bt talong reveals that Filipino farmers would be able to grow Bt talong cultivars without royalty costs and, thus, would not become economically subservient to any particular entity that would otherwise be able to control the Bt talong market. From an intellectual-property standpoint, Filipino farmers are well-positioned to reap the economic benefits of cultivating the insect-resistant Bt talong cultivar,” it added.

–Published in The Philippine Star.  See article link here.

Pinoy, foreign scientists re-tackle BT eggplant, biotech fears

You’ve heard the term biotechnology before. Defined as “any technique that uses whole or part of a living thing to make new products, improve or develop plants, animals and other organisms for specific use,” biotechnology has many applications. Biotechnology is responsible for life-saving vaccines and fertilizers.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), “Traditional biotechnology includes fermentation to produce common products such as vinegar, soy sauce and wine.”

ISAAA-SEARCA celebration
On April 29, ISAAA, together with the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the global commercialization of biotech crops at a media conference in Muntinlupa City. Filipino and Bangladeshi scientists discussed advances made in the field of biotechnology in 2015. In particular, the conference highlighted the progress and acceptance of genetically modified eggplant, or Bt Brinjal, in Bangladesh.

ISAAA is “a not-for-profit international organization that shares the benefits of crop biotechnology to various stakeholders, particularly resource-poor farmers in developing countries, through knowledge sharing initiatives and the transfer and delivery of proprietary biotechnology applications.”

SEARCA is “a non-profit organization established by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) in 1966. As SEAMEO’s center of excellence in agriculture, SEARCA is mandated ‘to provide to the participating countries high quality graduate study in agriculture; promote, undertake, and coordinate research programs related to the needs and problems of the Southeast Asian region; and disseminate the findings of agricultural research and experimentation.’”

Lamenting the eggplant
In the welcome remarks, Dr. Gil Saguiguit, Jr., Director of SEARCA, commented that biotechnology is frequently bombarded by claims that it is detrimental to health. Such claims led to the Supreme Court decision to stop field tests on Bt eggplant in 2015.

In his message, Dr. Eufemio Rasco of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) said that though the Philippines was the first to develop Bt eggplant, Filipinos may never benefit from it. He compared the Philippine case to Bangladesh. “After seven years of field and greenhouse trials in various locations, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to approve the commercial planting of Bt brinjal.” Bt Brinjal was approved for release on October 30, 2013.

Rasco lamented, “The Bangladeshi people trusted their scientists, we did not (trust ours). Let us not allow temporary setbacks to dampen our commitment to help farmers and consumers.” He hoped that the concerns of farmers, and the issue of food security, would not be overlooked in the elections, or by the incoming government officials. The benefits of biotech will be enjoyed by generations to come, he prophesied.

The case of Bangladesh
Two Bangladeshi scientists spoke at the conference to share their experience with Bt Brinjal.

Dr. Gour Pada Das is the Country Coordinator of Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership in Bangladesh. Das shared an analysis of published reports about Bt Brinjal, in the hopes of determining how media perceived the new crop. He explained that the media was a powerful ally in promoting the acceptance of Bt Brinjal, and he shared their efforts in helping media practitioners understand the science.

Dr. ASM Mahbubur Rahman Khan is the Chief Scientific Officer and Head of the On-Farm Research Division at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI). He shared that two important stakeholders were satisfied with Bt Brinjal: farmers and housewives. Farmers were interested to grow the four varieties that were approved for release, and they were rewarded with lower production cost, higher yield, and higher gross margins. Housewives were happy to have healthy fruit.

Public fears
The open forum was moderated by Dr. Vivencio R. Mamaril, Program Director of Biotechnology Program Office at the Department of Agriculture. One question that arose was that of labeling. Detractors insist that biotech crops should be labeled as GMOs, and all products with ingredients that use biotech crops be appropriately labeled as well. But Das and Khan explained that Bangladeshi law makes no such requirement. Bt Brinjal, for example, is simply labeled “insect-free.”

Dr. Randy A. Hautea, Global Coordinator and Director of ISAAA’s Southeast Asia Center, explained that locally, biotech crops are sold in markets as simply “pesticide-free” or “insecticide-free.” He reasoned that labels should describe the product and its traits, providing information that matters to consumers. He further explained that almost all local tofu or “tokwa” is made from imported GM soybean. “What is the value of labeling it GM tokwa?”

Consequences of the Supreme Court ruling
Inevitably, Hautea was asked to comment on the Supreme Court ruling to stop field tests on Bt eggplant. He explained that ultimately, the case has not been decided, and that the court has entertained all motions for reconsideration.

As a representative from the DA, Mamaril quelled fears that other biotech crops would be affected by the Supreme Court ruling. He explained that previous approvals of other biotech crops were in no danger of being repealed, and farmers could continue planting them if they wished.

In closing, Hautea hoped the Philippines would learn from the experience of Bangladesh, identifying parallels in between the two countries’ developments in various fields of science and technology as well. He hoped that “we will share the same political will their government exhibited in the case of Bt Brinjal, so that we also put the weight of government behind a stronger push for science and technology in this country.”

With a new government in place, Filipino scientists can only hope for the best. — TJD, GMA News

–Written by Regina Laug-Rosero, GMA News Online.  See article link here.