Biotech crops and political gullibility PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 18 June 2011 14:18

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 economic progress
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 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 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 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, through --DR. FERNANDO A. BERNARDO