Bt eggplant’s long journey to market

By Lilian Mellejor

April 25, 2018, 11:40 am

DAVAO CITY -- She has grown more white hairs and soon, she will be bowing out of service.

But Dr Desiree Hautea, project leader of Bt Eggplant, never lost hope on the commercialization of the genetically-modified eggplant. Hautea is hopeful the Bt eggplant will finally reach the market before she retires.

The Bt eggplant project suffered setbacks after the environmental group Greenpeace opposed the field tests. From the streets to the halls of the Supreme Court, the Bt eggplant’s journey was uphill. In Davao City, the plants were uprooted at the testing area in University of the Philippines – Mindanao (UP-Min).

The legal battle ended in 2016 when the Supreme Court reversed its ruling that prevented the Bt eggplant field testing. The high court ruled in favour of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications Inc., Environmental Management Bureau, Crop Life Philippines, University of the Philippines Los Baños Foundation and University of the Philippines.

During her lecture on the Bt Eggplant update at the three-day Training and Writeshop on Communicating Trends and Innovations in ASEAN Agriculture for Regional media organized by the Department of Agriculture (DA) XI on April 18 to 20, Hautea said it has been a long journey since the inception of the project.

“It’s a mission. I want to see this product to reach the market,” she said. The rationale behind developing Bt eggplant was the significant yield loss due to insect damage, excessive use pesticide use and potential harm to human health and environment, higher cost of production due to pesticides.

Hautea noted that pesticide use in eggplant production has health and environmental effects. The Bt eggplant case, Hautea said the high court decision provided a clearer commercialization opportunity.

Hautea said proponents in the Philippines have fully satisfied three of the four stages and requirements of biosafety of GM crops. These are contained trials in a research laboratory which was done in 2005-2007; the single-location, limited confined field trial done from 2008-2009; and the multi-location trials in UPLB, Pangasinan, Camarines Sur, and Kabacan in North Cotabato from 2010-2012.

The field trials have shown key results such lesser eggplant fruit and shoot borer which is the most destructive insect pest in eggplant; fewer larvae count and less feeding tunnels in Bt eggplants; and, higher undamaged yield.

After the Supreme Court, the Bt eggplant will hurdle another process under the new Joint Department Circular (JDC) requirements.

“The product is ready but needs to comply with the JDC regulations,” said Hautea, who cited the role of the media in educating the public on biotech or the genetically-modified products.

“We are in the process of preparing all regulatory requirements for submission. We are working hard with our partners,” Hautea said.

The new JDC requirements for the approval of GMOs will be issued each by the Department of Agriculture (DA), Departments of Science and Technology, Health, Environment and Natural Resources, and Interior and Local Government.

“We will try to get the regulatory approval this year and hopefully the approval next year,” Hautea said.

Currently, the Bt eggplant propagation continued. Parental plants, which serve for seed production can be harvested in two to three weeks. There are about more or less 20 parental lines inside a screenhouse in UPLB. Each parental plant can yield an average eight fruits.

The Philippines is one of the three countries engaged in Bt eggplant research. Of the three, it is only Bangladesh who approved four Bt brinjal (eggplant) varieties for propagation in October 2013. From 20 fields for commercial planting in 2014, the area expanded to 108 farms in 2015, 250 farms in 2016, then 6,512 farms in 2017. And, this year, the area reached 25,520 farms.

In the Philippines, Hautea said Pangasinan remains the top eggplant producing province with 3,894 hectares. Others are Nueva Ecija with 1,529 hectares, Isabela with 1,028.73 hectares, Iloilo with 929 hectares and Quezon with 828 hectares planted to eggplant.

Apart from Bt eggplant, there are three more biotech crops – the Golden Rice, Bt Cotton, and PRSV-R Papaya.

Still in the pipeline are wheat, cassava, banana with Vit A, pigeon peas and mustard.

The Philippines is the first country in Southeast Asia to plant biotech corn in 2003. Since its approval for commercial planting in 2002, there are already 812,000 hectares planted with biotech corn in 2016 or an increase of 16 percent from 2015.

Dr. Rhodora Aldemita, the Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA-KC), said that year-by-year increase in adoption of biotech corn reflect significant and consistent benefits to Pinoy farmers.

The Philippines is the 13th biggest producer of biotech or GM crops in the world.

The top five countries growing biotech crops are the United States of America with 72.9 million hectares; Brazil with 49.1 million hectares; Argentina with 23.8 hectares; Canada with 11.6 hectares; and, India with 10.8 million hectares.

The major biotech crops are Soybean which reached 50 percent of global biotech crop area in 2016; maize – 33 percent; cotton – 12 percent; canola – 5 percent; and, one percent for other crops. Aldemita said biotech crops increased 110 folds from 1996 to 2016 and the accumulated area is 2.1 billion hectares.

She said biotech growing alleviate poverty and hunger. She said that in 2016 biotech crops already benefited 18 million small farmers. (Lilian C. Mellejor/PNA)