MANILA, Philippines — Some European organizations are
rightfully promoting the green revolution, but unfortunately
launching worldwide campaigns against Genetically Modified plants
or biotech crops. They always say No, No to biotech crops, claiming
that they are a great threat to human health and cause environmental
The strongest evidence of long-term GM plant safety is that
Bt crops (corn and cotton) and other biotech crops (soybean)
have been grown on more than 100 million hectares over 15 years
in many countries, and there has not been a single substantiated
report of human illness or allergy to date for an approved GM
variety. There also has been a large decrease (particularly
in cotton) in the amount of chemical insecticides used by farmers
due to Bt crops. In 2010, 148 million hectares of biotech crops
were grown in 10 industrialized countries and 19 developing
countries. About 30 countries imported and consumed biotech
crop products in 2010 (see Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM
crops: 2010 by Clive James, ISAAA Board Chairman).
Unfortunately, some national and local politicians have believed
campaigns against biotech crops. For example late last year,
the Davao City government made a strong resolution against Bt
eggplant, and people in support of the Davao City decision invaded
the University of the Philippines Mindanao field experiment,
and uprooted Bt eggplants last December 17. In another incident,
some activists allegedly supported by Greenpeace destroyed the
fence of the field experiment on Bt eggplant of the Institute
of Plant Breeding, University of the Philippines Los Baños,
last February 17, uprooted the eggplants, and left a placard
announcing that Bt eggplant is an environmental hazard.
The UP Los Baños Institutional Biosafety Committee (UPLB-IBC)
condemned the February 17 vandalism, stating that “the
field trial was duly endorsed by the UPLB-IBC, and has undergone
the biosafety evaluation of the National Committee on Biosafety
of the Philippines (NCBP) before it was issued a permit by the
Bureau of Plant Industry.” It added: “Aside from
trespassing and destruction of University properties, Greenpeace
directly violated the academic freedom of the University and
illegally interfered in its legitimate research activities.”
Political gullibility can be a big obstacle to
GM plants are science-based. Politicians should keep this in
mind and refrain from making political decisions for or against
any particular product of genetic engineering. Each case of
GM plant needs to be studied carefully and scientifically to
minimize if not completely eliminate risks to human health,
environment, and biodiversity.
Let us not swallow all words against GM plants hook, line,
and sinker. To say that all GM plants are undesirable because
genes from other species or microorganisms like bacteria are
integrated into these biotech crops is like saying that vaccines
against cholera, typhoid, and small pox are undesirable because
dead or weakened living bacteria are injected into human bodies.
Let us bear in mind that there are harmful as well as useful
genes, in the same way that there are harmful and beneficial
Let us also bear in mind that vaccines are generally used with
minimal risk to public health because they undergo rigid tests
and have to pass through the strict regulations of the Food
and Drug Administration of the USA and the Bureau of Food and
Drugs of the Philippines. In the same way, all GM plants or
biotech crops in the Philippines undergo rigid laboratory and
field testing and pass the strict protocols in laboratory and
field experiments established by the Biotech Offices of the
Department of Science and Technology and Department of Agriculture
and approved by the Philippine government. (For copies of detailed
protocols for testing GM plants, one may write the Biotech Core
Team of the Bureau of Plant Industry.)
All concerned government officials and citizens should know
that getting government approval for commercialization of any
biotech crop is like passing through the eye of a needle. It
requires a lot of meticulous scientific work in quarantined
laboratories and in isolated and protected experimental fields.
It is a very costly research endeavor in terms of scientific
expertise, sophisticated laboratory facilities, and carefully
designed, isolated field testings.
Voluminous scientific data must be gathered and analyzed, and
all reports must pass the critical analysis of external experts
to ensure there is no risk to health, the environment, and biodiversity.
All this expensive scientific work is necessary because there
is no less expensive alternative. This has to be resorted to
in exceptional cases where important genes are not available
within the crop species, but available only in remotely related
species or in microorganisms like bacteria.
We are now living in a rapidly changing world with burgeoning
populations, decreasing land and water resources, and frequent
droughts and floods caused by climate change. Biotechnology
should play a key role in increasing agricultural productivity,
and reducing poverty and hunger. We have to develop biotech
crops that are pest-resistant to eliminate or minimize the need
for chemical pesticides that are hazardous to human health,
the environment and biodiversity.
The case of the controversial Bt eggplant
But let us focus more on Bt eggplant because this is now a hotly
contested GM plant in the Philippines.
Eggplant, the number one vegetable in the Philippines, is attacked
by the eggplant fruit and shoot borer. This insect can damage
up to 70% of the eggplant fruits and shoots. To protect their
crops against this destructive insect, the farmers spray chemical
pesticides every one to three days! Many farmers, instead of
spraying pesticides, have adopted the practice of dipping the
developing eggplant fruit into jars of pesticide to make sure
the whole fruit is protected from the eggplant fruit and shoot
borer. When housewives buy healthy-looking eggplants in the
market, there is a high probability that the fruits are laden
with pesticide, and consumers would have some pesticides for
dinner without knowing it.
Scientists in India were the first to develop the Bt eggplant
to make eggplant varieties genetically resistant to the fruit
and shoot borer so that farmers need not spray chemical pesticides
to control the pest. Materials from India were accessed by Filipino
scientists for the development of local varieties of Bt eggplant.
What is Bt?
Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, one kind of many bacteria
that thrive on organic matter in most of our soils. It is not
harmful to man and animals. As a beneficial bacterium, Bt was
used to develop Dipel, an organic pesticide for controlling
Lepidopteran insects (butterflies and moths with scaly wings)
that destroy leafy vegetables like lettuce and cabbage. Dipel
was invented some 40 years ago, but was not popular among vegetable
growers because it could control only Lepidopteran insects.
Farmers prefer chemical pesticides that can kill different kinds
of insect pests.
Required rigid field testing of Bt eggplant
Scientists have successfully engineered the transfer of a Bt
gene into the eggplant, which confers resistance to the eggplant
fruit and shoot borer. This GM plant or biotech crop variety
has already passed rigid laboratory tests, and is now undergoing
regional field tests for at least two seasons in the Philippines.
Regional field tests are done in isolated, well protected fields
to prevent the premature spread of the variety as well as avoid
possible cross-pollination of farmers’ eggplants in neigh
A lot of data, including crop yield, damage caused by the eggplant
fruit and shoot borer and other insect pests, and population
of friendly insects, have to be gathered. After gathering all
data, all experimental eggplants are to be destroyed completely
by chopping, boiling, and burying in the ground to ensure that
there is no premature dissemination of seeds and plant parts
of Bt eggplant.
Highly qualified scientist-evaluators are tapped by the Bureau
of Plant Industry Biotech Core Team to make the most critical
analysis of data from all field trials. Unless the field trials
pass all the criteria for evaluation, the new variety will not
be approved by the Department of Agriculture for seed production
and commercial release.
Many farmers are eagerly waiting for the seed release of Bt
eggplant because, with this new variety, they do not have to
buy expensive pesticides and spray every one to three days to
control the insect pest. This will reduce the cost of eggplant
production, improve the quality of their product and increase
their income. Moreover, farmers’ health will be protected
because they will no longer be exposed to chemical pesticides,
and consumers can be sure the eggplants they eat are free of
With all of the foregoing facts and information, there are
no reasons why Greenpeace and others should be against Bt eggplant.
GM plants, in general, should be welcomed by the public. There
can be specific GM plants or biotech crop varieties that should
not be released to the market if proven ineffective or dangerous
to the health of the people. But each case of GM plant must
be analytically studied by scientists and government agencies
responsible for protecting people’s health as well as
the environment. For this reason, scientists as well as responsible
government agencies must be given complete freedom to test GM
plants following strict protocols established by the government.
For any questions or comments on this article, contact
Dr. Fernando A. Bernardo, former Dean of the UP College of Agriculture,