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.

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