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 pollution.
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 bacteria.
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
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,
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 boring communities.
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 pesticides.
With all of the foregoing facts and information, there
are no reasons why Greenpeace and others should be against
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, through fbernardo810_at_yahoo.com.