BT Eggplants, anyone?

What if you find out that the eggplant in your favorite kare-kare or pinakbet is a BT Eggplant? Would you be concerned?

Josie Quilloy, 34 and a mother of four, said she will. She believes that  BT eggplant is no longer fresh because it is already artificial and it can possibly be a source of illness.

BT (Bacillus thuringensis) Eggplant, a genetically engineered plant, is currently undergoing trials in several locations in the Philippines. After field testing, BT eggplant may become available in the market.

BT eggplant has resistance to its pest, Fruit-and-Shoot Borer (FSB), after its gene has been inserted with Bacillus thuringensis, a bacteria that is naturally occurring in our soil.

The Science behind BT eggplant

According to a brochure by the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSP) entitled “Development of Fruit and Shoot Borer-Resistant Eggplant in the Philippines” FSB is considered the most destructive insect pest of eggplants accounting for 51-73 per cent of decrease in production.

Dr. Rhodora R. Aldemita, senior program officer of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) explained that the BT gene inserted in the plant produces a protein which harms the pest’s larva. She emphasized that the pest has a specific “receptor” in its digestive system where the protein will bind. Receptors are sites that receive and bind specific substances to produce a certain reaction. In FSB, the receptor will convert the protein into a toxin. This happens in the alkali pH of the insect gut.  Humans, on the other hand, have acidic pH in the intestine and do not have that specific receptor. Meaning, the protein will not harm humans once they eat it from the BT eggplant, Dr. Aldemita added.

The Promise of BT eggplant

Dr. Aldemita explained that unlike the BT eggplant, non-BT eggplants available in our market use large amounts of pesticides and insecticides to avoid FSB damage.

BT eggplants will no longer need pesticide application, eliminating possible health risks that could be acquired from the chemicals. Through the use of BT crops, farmers will also become less exposed to cancer risks. Dr. Aldemita also pointed out that BT eggplant benefits not only the farmers but also the consumers. BT eggplants mean safer eggplants for consumption.

According to Dr. Aldemita, “Kahit nga ako gusto ko na magtanim e, kasi farmer ang asawa ko. E ung talong talaga ang [lakas] sa pesticide.” She said she always tells her husband to tell them beforehand every time he sprays pesticide to the eggplant garden which is beside their house.

Unlike the BT corn, the seeds of the BT eggplant will not be expensive. Aside from being developed by public institutions, there are open pollinated and hybrid seeds. Open pollinated varieties can further reproduce the seeds for the next season planting. Hybrid seeds on the other hand, should be bought by farmers every time they plant. Hybrid seeds can be attractive to large-scale farmers and the open-pollinated ones to small-scale farmers. “It will be a great help to the farmers if it will be approved” Dr. Aldemita said.

The Risks of BT eggplant

Despite the promises of the technology, there are still risks attached to it. According to an interview with Ang Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), a non-government organization (NGO), they strongly oppose the testing and commercialization of BT eggplant and other genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because of their possible effects in health and on the environment.

Mr. Alfie Palumbat, advocacy officer of MASIPAG said that their fear is that BT eggplant would be directly consumed by humans, unlike BT corn that was intended for animal feed. According to him, this is one reason why thorough research should be conducted before its commercialization. Also, there is a possibility for the FSB to develop resistance to the toxin, therefore requiring pesticide use in the long run.

“BT eggplant commercialization is unlike a car that can be pulled out from the market when there are problems in brakes or in the machine. GMOs are living organisms. So once they are already in the environment, they reproduce on their own and they can affect non-BT eggplants making them difficult to pull out.”

Palumbat stated. He also stressed that organic farming and not GMOs are the solution to the problem.

According to Palumbat, the proponents have a point in pushing BT eggplant commercialization because they want to lessen the use of pesticide use of farmers. “We organize possible solutions because we are also against the use of chemicals but we are more against the use of GMOs.”

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Commercialization of BT eggplant

Currently, BT Eggplant is not available in the market. It is still under multi-locational trials to ensure its food and environmental safety. The Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) has finished testing in specific areas in Luzon like the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), Laguna;  Sta. Maria, Pangasinan; and Central Bicol State University for Agriculture, Pili, Camarines Sur. Likewise, there also have testing sites in Southern Mindanao and North Cotabato. On the other hand, they are still waiting for approval to proceed testing in Visayas State University and Sta. Barbara at Iloilo.

“The researchers at UPLB target to finish the multi-locational trials by next year, then they will look at possible commercialization next year upon approval”, Dr. Aldemita said. Their prospected release of BT eggplant in the market is on 2014 but it is still subject to changes. — Ais Lynn Fabiola G. Manuel

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