The first-ever field level study of the effects of insect-resistant genetically modified Bt eggplants on non-target arthropod species, carried out in the Philippines by researchers from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) working with Cornell University, has been published in the prestigious open-access scientific journal PLOS One.
The data, collected over three growing seasons in the Philippines' main eggplant-growing region of Pangasinan, shows no significant differences between the number of insects and other arthropod individuals and species between the genetically modified Bt and non-Bt control eggplants.
This finding that genetically modified Bt eggplant has no negative impacts on the biological diversity of non-target organisms is consistent, the study authors point out, with previous studies on insect-resistant Bt crops such as cotton and corn. The paper is entitled “Assessing Potential Impact of Bt Eggplants on Non-Target Arthropods in the Philippines” and was published on Oct. 31, 2016.
The corresponding author of the study, which was subjected to PLOS One's rigorous scientific peer review, is Dr. Desiree Hautea, professor of crop biotechnology of UPLB’s Institute of Plant Breeding, College of Agriculture. “This first published report from extensive field studies of Bt eggplants affirms that the technology is ecologically benign,” Hautea asserted.
Study co-author Dr. Anthony Shelton, international professor of entomology at Cornell University, welcomed the publication of the results. He commented: "This study confirms the environmental safety of Bt eggplant to non-target organisms under field conditions in the Philippines. Our previous study, published earlier in the same journal, documented the effectiveness of Bt eggplant against the destructive eggplant fruit and shoot borer. Combined, these studies clearly document the benefits of Bt eggplant to growers, farm workers, consumers and the environment."
The study was funded by USAID, with match funding provided by the University of the Philippines Los Baños and the Philippine government’s Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Program Office (the funders had no direct role in the study, however). The eggplants used were varieties (purple, long fruits) preferred by Filipino farmers and consumers, with the Bt gene crossbred into them from an original transformation event carried out in India by the seed company Mahyco, which donated its genetic technology to the project. The field trials were carried out between March 2010 and October 2012.
Bt eggplant could be of significant benefit to Filipino farmers and consumers, the study authors suggest, because conventional eggplant is typically sprayed with insecticide up to 72 times during the 180-day cropping season to control infestation by the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB) pest. Bt eggplant, as a previous study by the same authors has demonstrated, is fully resistant to the fruit and shoot borer pest, so it does not require pesticide sprays to prevent damage by this insect.
Filipino farmers use broad-spectrum insecticides for the conventional control of EFSB, including profenofos, triazophos, chlorpyrifos, cypermethrin and malathion. In contrast, EFSB-resistant Bt eggplant varieties can be grown by farmers as part of a more ecologically-friendly “integrated pest management” (IPM) agricultural system. Using resistant varieties as a foundation, IPM includes such techniques as sex pheromones for trapping adults and disrupting mating, removing infested plant parts and more selective and sparing use of chemical insecticides. Cornell's Professor Shelton is an internationally-recognized expert on IPM.
IPM is more ecologically friendly, the researchers state, because "agriculture depends on several arthropod groups performing ecological functions such as decomposition, pollination and biological control that are essential to soil health and crop productivity." Broad-spectrum insecticides kill a wide variety of these non-target arthropods, reducing the useful ecological functions they are able to perform and harming overall biodiversity in the field.
"Farmers would gain profits because the technology would reduce EFSB damage, increase the marketable yield and lower production costs. Consumers would have an adequate supply of safer eggplant at a lower price. The adoption of Bt eggplant is projected to greatly reduce pesticide use on eggplant, thereby reducing both pesticide loading in the environment and hazards to farm laborers and consumers. Bt eggplant presents a more efficacious, environmentally benign and profitable alternative to the current practice of intense use of chemical insecticides in eggplant production."
The genetically modified eggplant known as 'Bt brinjal' provides dramatic control of its most serious insect pest in Asia and eliminates the need for insecticides, according to results just published by scientists in the prestigious open-access online journal PLoS ONE.
Field tests on this important vegetable were carried out by scientists based at the University of the Philippines Los Baños between 2010 and 2012, comparing the effectiveness of plants carrying the Bt gene to conventional controls. The field testing site was located in the province of Pangasinan, the Philippines, to best represent vegetable-growing conditions in the country.
“We measured the expression of the insecticidal Bt protein and counted the number of pests on each plant, concluding that the Bt eggplant conferred near-total control of the most serious pest of eggplant in Asia, the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) caterpillar,” said Desiree Hautea, professor of plant breeding and crop biotechnology at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños and the lead author on the paper.
Eggplant is one of the most important vegetable crops in the Philippines, but currently the only way to control FSB is by the use of broad-spectrum insecticides. “Research has shown that farmers spray between 20-70 times over the growing season in the Philippines for control of FSB,” said Anthony Shelton, Cornell University international professor of entomology and one of the authors on the paper. "With the pest control offered by Bt eggplant, these sprays can be eliminated."
The insecticides used by vegetable farmers on eggplant include profenofos, triazophos, chlorpyrifos, cypermethrin, and malathion. Residues from their application have been found in both the soils of eggplant farms and in harvested fruits.
Farmers and farm workers have also complained of ailments such as skin irritation, redness of the eyes, muscle pains and headaches linked to exposure to these pesticides.
The results of the field trials show that Bt eggplant would not require any insecticide spraying against fruit and shoot borer since the Bt eggplant provides 95-100% control by itself. Despite this promise of environmental and health benefits, some activists groups have vociferously opposed the development.
In 2012 Greenpeace activists vandalised one of the Bt eggplant field trials at the University of the Philippines Los Baños site, although scientists at the time said that the activists had ironically not destroyed the genetically modified plants but instead the protective biological barrier of non-GM pollen trap eggplants, which served as the required biosafety measure for the scientific trial.
Greenpeace and other anti-GMO groups also later won court action against the scientists, culminating in a Supreme Court judgement against Bt eggplant trials in 2015 that was roundly condemned by the scientific and farmer communities. However, by then the trials had been completed and data gathered by the scientists that has now been published following peer review.
The PLoS One paper is entitled “Field Performance of Bt Eggplants (Solanum melongena L.) in the Philippines: Cry1Ac Expression and Control of the Eggplant Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis Guenée)". It is available free online for readers to download.
Bt eggplant, known as Bt talong in the Philippines, Bt brinjal in India and Bt begun in Bangladesh, has been subject to political controversy elsewhere in Asia. Although approved by India's biosafety authority, a moratorium was imposed by the then minister of environment Jairam Ramesh in 2010 after vociferous protests by anti-GMO activists. It remains in de-facto force today, causing farmers to spray frequently with toxic insecticides in an attempt to control FSB.
In Bangladesh, Bt eggplant has been developed by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) and released to the farmers by the government in 2014. Farmers have reported good harvests and dramatic reductions in their use of insecticide sprays. Last season, 108 farmers cultivated Bt eggplant in Bangladesh, with hundreds more growing the crop during the current season as farmers share and exchange seeds.
The Bt gene produces a protein that is harmless to humans but causes caterpillars to cease feeding. Bt is widely deployed in the world's corn and cotton crops, grown across more than 80 million hectares in 2015 in 28 countries, predominantly by resource-poor farmers. Bt corn is an especially important crop in the Philippines, and all Bt crops have led to dramatic observed reductions in insecticide use. Organic growers use the same Bt protein as a spray but it is far more effective and just as safe when produced by the plant.
Despite claims to the contrary by some anti-GMO campaigners, there is international scientific consensus that food from crops developed via genetic engineering are as safe as food from conventional crops. The US National Academy of Sciences recently reinforced this consensus on the safety of genetic engineering in a landmark new report.
Filipino farmer leaders from Pangasinan, Isabela, Butuan, Bukidnon, and Maguindanao recently participated in a two-day study visit to Bt brinjal (eggplant) farms in Bangladesh last February 23 to 26, 2016. Discussions on biotechnology regulations in Bangladesh, research and development of Bt brinjal, and farmer experiences on planting Bt brinjal were conducted with officials from the Bangladesh government and scientists from the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), namely: AKM Quamruzzaman, Senior Scientific Officer, BARI; Muhammad Solaiman Haider, Director for Planning, Department of Environment, Bangladesh Ministry of Environment; and ASM Mahbubur Rahman Khan, Chief Scientific Officer and Head, On-Farm Research Division, BARI. The field visit to Bt brinjal planting sites and interaction with Bt brinjal farmers were held in two villages in Bogra, Bangladesh.
During the discussion with Bangladesh officials and scientists, questions asked by the Filipino farmers were on the keys to success in the commercial approval and cultivation of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, as the first and only country to successfully deploy Bt brinjal. The farmer leaders also solicited insights and learning experiences that can help them communicate the plight of eggplant farmers in the Philippines to government, where its Supreme Court has permanently stopped the field trials of Bt eggplant, and nullified its operating regulations (Dept. of Agriculture Administrative Order No. 8) on research, field testing, commercialization, and importation of GM crops in the country.
According to GP Das, Country Coordinator for Bangladesh of the Feed the Future Biotechnology Partnership Project of Cornell University, this is the first time that farmers from another country are interacting with their officials and local farmers to share and learn from the Bangladesh experience. After it was approved for commercialization, Bt brinjal was planted in two hectares by 20 farmers in spring season and 10 hectares by 100 farmers in the winter season. Bt brinjal significantly increased the marketable yield of brinjal fruits thereby mitigating losses caused by wastage of infested and damaged fruits. In just over a year, expeditious cultivation of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh showed strong acceptance among brinjal farmers.
GP Das added that apart from the farmer-scientist and farmer-to-farmer interactions, it is also important that Filipino farmers learn how Bt brinjal was adopted by Bangladesh, what were the processes undertaken, hurdles surpassed, and how its country regulation and government supported the responsible stewardship of the technology. Strong political will of the government and public-private partnership for the technology were key to the successful approval and commercial cultivation.
Bt brinjal important in Bangladesh
“Brinjal is the most popular vegetable in Bangladesh and is consumed in rural and urban areas. It occupies 10 percent of the total land area planted to vegetables in Bangladesh,” explains Khan. Brinjal production in Bangladesh is currently at 3.45 mMT, but low production is attributed to insect infestation, the most rampant of which is the fruit and shoot borer (FSB).
He added that although there are more than 100 varieties of brinjal in Bangladesh, no natural resistance was found against the FSB. Similar to other countries, like the Philippines, to solve this problem, farmers in Bangladesh use pesticides indiscriminately. “Our farmers spray insecticide up to 84 times during a six to seven-month cropping season. This is comparable to Filipino farmers spraying their crops every day to prevent losses due to FSB. Pesticide cost is 32 percent of total cost of production. That’s why our government has to do something about the situation. Bangladesh has a large population, and our scientists acknowledge the fact that it is their responsibility to feed our people,” says Khan.
In October 2013, BARI released four varieties of Bt brinjal, which it currently produces. Initial production in 2014 was pegged at 90kg. This year, the government-run research institution is targeting 500kg, which will be awarded to 233 farmers, almost twice the number of beneficiaries as compared to the previous year. Bt brinjal can now be grown all-year-round in Bangladesh.
In 2015, average annual income of Bt brinjal farmers were estimated at Tk73,000. Adds Khan, “farmers preferred the use of Bt brinjal technology because pesticide use was reduced, followed by high crop yield, and easy marketability of the product because of its good quality and taste.”
In terms of regulation, Haider explained that “only genetically-engineered crops are regulated in Bangladesh, and all these products undergo biosafety processes. GM crops are regulated by the Ministry of Environment, while medical biotechnology is handled by the Ministry of Health.”
Says GP Das, “biotechnology should be used only on crops that have a big problem. In Bangladesh, regulation is a step-by-step process. We are moving slowly because seeds are not yet available. Research, on the other hand, is currently in full swing as we aim to develop Bt equivalents of all 16 popular brinjal varieties.”
After the field visit, some of the Filipino farmer leaders gave their insights on the whole experience. Rosalie Ellasus, farmer leader and municipal councilor in San Jacinto, Pangasinan, reflects on her Bangladesh experience. She says, “even though we weren’t able to get seeds, it was fulfilling to see a real Bt brinjal fruit and be assured that the technology really works --- lessens pesticide use and doesn’t harm the environment. I hope our government finally sees the light on this issue. We are losing so much because they are depriving us of this technology.”
Reynaldo Cabanao, president of the Asian Farmers Regional Network Philippines (ASFARNET Phils.) stated that he joined the study visit hoping he will be able to bring back seeds to the Philippines. Says Cabanao, “I am frustrated that BARI is unable to share seeds because Bt eggplant is prohibited in the Philippines. But learning about their farmers’ experiences and how much it has benefitted them in such a short time inspires us more to push for this technology. The Philippine government and Supreme Court should hear out the sentiments of Filipino farmers.”
To strengthen capacity to develop and disseminate genetically engineered eggplant in Bangladesh and the Philippines, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has awarded Cornell a $4.8 million, three-year grant. The award supports USAID’s work under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global initiative to fight hunger and improve food security using agricultural science and technology.
In the Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership, Cornell will protect eggplant farmers from yield losses and improve their livelihoods in partnership with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) and the University of the Philippines at Los Baños. Eggplant, or brinjal, is a staple crop that is an important source of income and nutrition for farmers and consumers in South Asia.
“Because of infestation by the fruit and shoot borer, or FSB, as much as 70 percent of the eggplant crop in South Asia never makes it to market,” said Anthony Shelton, international professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, who will direct the project. “Farmers in Asia spray hazardous insecticides as often as every other day to control FSB.”
Genetically engineered eggplant, or Bt brinjal, has been developed over the last 11 years and uses a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium to produce a protein that causes borers to stop feeding.
“Bt, or bacillus thuringiensis, is a biological pesticide that organic growers have used for decades,” said Shelton. “Bt brinjal increases food security and reduces the use of insecticides that negatively affects human health and the environment.”
“Bangladesh faces food shortages, increasing population, and decreasing amounts of arable land,” said Dr. Md. Rafiqul Islam Mondal, director general of BARI. “Genetically engineered crops developed under the Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership will enhance the quality of life for Bangladeshis by increasing income, improving nutrition and health, and fostering a safer environment.”
Over the past decade, Cornell has led the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII), also funded by USAID, that prompted a consortium of institutions in Asia and Africa to use the tools of modern biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering, to improve crops to address major production constraints for which conventional plant breeding tools have not been effective.
According to Shelton, ABSPII’s most significant achievement was working with BARI and the Bangladesh government to achieve product authorization of eggplant varieties in that country.
“The Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership award will help realize the full impact of USAID’s preceding years’ investment in research and technology development, to facilitate the late-stage development, deregulation, commercialization and dissemination of Bt eggplant to farmers,” said Joe Huesing, USAID senior biotechnology adviser. “The goal is to increase food security and improve environmental quality through supporting the national partners in their efforts to commercialize and adopt genetically engineered eggplant.”
In October 2013, Bangladesh became the first country in South Asia to approve commercial cultivation of a genetically engineered food crop. In February 2014, Matia Chowdhury, the Bangladesh minister of agriculture, released four varieties of Bt brinjal to 20 farmers. With the establishment of the 20 Bt brinjal demonstration plots in 2014 and 104 more in 2015, BARI reported a noticeable decrease in fruit and shoot borer infestation, increased yields, decreased use of pesticide and improved income for farmers.
“The performance of Bt brinjal was better than non-Bt brinjal in all districts,” said Mondal.
Five additional Bt eggplant varieties are in the pipeline for release in Bangladesh.
The Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership addresses and integrates all elements of the commercialization process — including technology development, regulation, marketing, seed distribution, and product stewardship. It also provides strong platforms for policy development, capacity building, gender equality, outreach and communication.