The Philippines has approved the commercial cultivation of genetically modified eggplant becoming only the second country after Bangladesh to approve the splicing of a pest-resistant gene taken from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium into the popular vegetable.
A statement by the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) announced the regulatory approval for the “Bt eggplant” on 18 October. This followed approval last year for the use of Bt eggplant as food or feed for animals by the Department of Agriculture of the Philippines.
Critics of the technology filed a case in 2012 to stop the field trials of Bt eggplant and the Philippine Court of Appeals issued a ruling in their favour. The Supreme Court backed the Court of Appeal’s decision in 2015 but reversed this decision in 2016 in favour of the Bt eggplant scientists.
Bt eggplant was first developed in India with fields trials going back to 2002. But the country implemented a ban on commercial cultivation in February 2010 following opposition from environmental and food safety activists. However, neighbouring Bangladesh announced in 2013 the approval for the genetically modified version of the eggplant, also known as aubergine and brinjal.
“Bt eggplant contains a natural protein from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), making it resistant to the crop’s most devastating insect pest – the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB). This Bt protein is highly specific to EFSB larvae and is safe for humans, animals, and other non-target arthropods,” according to the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD).
PCAARRD has mined and sequenced 10 genes and 10 promoters (the switch that turns a gene on and off) in two eggplant species, Solanum melongenaand S. aethiopicum. Moreover, two new defence genes against insect herbivory were identified.
According to Lourdes Taylo, who led the studies on the Bt eggplant at UPLB, “our objective in developing Bt eggplant is to ensure increased productivity of the growers by increasing marketable yield because of less damage from borers and ensuring safe harvest for the consumers because of no insecticide residue”.
Taylo told SciDev.Net that following regulatory approvals, “focus was in the production of high-quality planting materials for distribution. The growers will also be educated because there will be conditions like insect resistance that must be strictly complied with by the growers.”
Don Traje, a technical agriculture consultant, said that Bt eggplants were developed as a countermeasure to Lepidopterous insects, destructive butterfly and moth species. Current commercial pesticides in the country cannot control the insects as they bore through the flesh and pesticide only reaches the surface areas of the plant.
“If you spray more thoroughly, on the other hand, there is a risk of using too much pesticides which is not good,” said Traje.
Farmers suffer significant losses of between 51-73 per cent from the pest, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit advocacy group for the promotion of advance agriculture technology, including biotech.
As such, many farmers spray chemical insecticides every other day or up to 80 times for each cropping season. It is also a practice in the Philippines to dip the eggplants before harvesting in a mix of chemicals as a precaution against pests.
Traje said using Bt eggplant allows farmers to be more productive and efficient because they can time their harvests better and reduce the waiting period for chemicals to wear off from the plant system before harvesting.
Gilbert Felongco writes for SciDev.net. This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.