The Philippines field tests Bt eggplant

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The government of the Philippines is evaluating whether to allow full scale commercial development of eggplant genetically modified to produce the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria. Multi-location field trials are being conducted, according to Emilana Bernardo, Ph.D., a member of the Institutional Biosafety Committee of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB).

The country is evaluating the use of Bt eggplant because many farmers are spraying insecticides up to 80 times per season to keep up with the pests. The fruit and shoot borers are the pests most farmers are trying to control. Studies in large eggplant-producing provinces found that nearly all farmers are using chemical insecticides to ensure they have crops to sell.

The question posed to the government and the country now is whether it is safer to use the extensive amount of chemical insecticides to control the borers or use Bt eggplant, which is expected to require fewer insecticide use.

“The very basic question is ‘which is safer?’ The present practice or the alternative, the Bt eggplant which is rigorously evaluated by experts? Is bathing the unharvested eggplant fruits in chemicals, which would end up in dinner tables of people, safe?” said Bernardo.

“The university is conducting research on Bt eggplant because we know that this has promising potentials and is considered safer than the current practice,” she said.

Dr. Bernardo is not as concerned over the possibility that the Bt eggplant will outcross with other eggplant varieties. She sees it more as an advantage.

“So what if they outcross? What is wrong with eggplant varieties gaining resistance against destructive pests? It would in fact be an advantage. If Bt eggplant is established as safe, through the field trials and proper compliance with the national regulatory framework, then let it proliferate,” Bernardo said.

Despite the many benefits the Bt eggplant would bring, many remain skeptical. However, Fernando Bernardo, Ph.D., is another voice working to help dispel fears about the product. He is also a plant breeder serving as a member of the Scientific and Review Panel of the Department of Agriculture in the Philippines.

He belied the claim of anti-GMO groups that the biosafety regulatory system of the country is flawed and lax. From his experience as an evaluator, Dr. Bernardo shared how comprehensive and stringent the reviews and assessments are. “They [the petitioners] have not seen how thick the papers I have to review. I said, ‘this is too much.’ But approvals should be science-based. GMOs should be science-based. But scientists have already proven that Bt is safe as a bacterium ever present in the soil; it is all around us,” he said.

“Our regulatory system is too strict. Even those that no longer need to be done are still being implemented as required by government regulations,” said Dr. Bernardo.

Dr. Bernardo explained that in every stage of assessment, all available information is evaluated. The STRP would then ask for additional data if deemed necessary; information must be complete and thoroughly evaluated before an application moves to the next stage.

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