Byline: Matt Hayes
A new Cornell-led project will accelerate the application of a proven biotechnology to enhance food and nutritional security in Bangladesh and the Philippines while protecting the health of farmers and the environment.
The Feed the Future Insect-Resistant Eggplant Partnership is funded by a five-year $10 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. The new award will continue efforts to introduce genetically engineered (GE) eggplant varieties that are resistant to devastating insect infestations and can reduce or eliminate the need for harmful pesticides.
The multifaceted project takes up the complex challenge of science and policy. The work will empower scientists in Bangladesh and the Philippines to develop new, locally adapted varieties of eggplant while engaging with policymakers on clear regulatory pathways for their release.
The goal, according to project director Maricelis Acevedo, is a more prosperous, food-secure and gender-equitable future for Bangladesh and the Philippines.
“Crop pests and pathogens are a threat to food security and the environmental sustainability of food systems globally,” said Acevedo, research professor of global development at Cornell. “Sustainable agricultural practices are essential to food production, and scientists and local regulatory agencies must work in tandem to produce food crops that are better and safer for the environment and people.”
Acevedo is the project director and serves as co-principal investigator with Sarah Evanega, director of the Alliance for Science, professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) and adjunct faculty member at Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science.
Based in Cornell University’s Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Feed the Future Insect-Resistant Eggplant Partnership combines expertise in agricultural and social sciences to achieve equitable socioeconomic results. As part of the project, Hale Ann Tufan, research professor of global development, will study if biotechnology products equitably benefit women, men, and young people within households that adopt them in Bangladesh. Looking beyond household level income benefits, the study will examine how gender norms and intrahousehold dynamics specifically shape positive or negative outcomes for women and youth.
Eggplant is rich in fiber and antioxidants and is one of the most popular vegetables in Bangladesh. Farmers growing eggplant must contend with continuous threats from insects, the most damaging of which is the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB). Larvae feed on young and maturing fruit and render infested eggplant inedible and unfit for market. Infestations can lead to yield losses up to 86%, even with farmers spraying expensive pesticides multiple times each season, often with little or no protective equipment.
Based on technology employed globally for more than 25 years to protect corn and cotton plants from insect attacks, Bt eggplant contains genes from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that is also widely used in organic agriculture. Studies show Bt is harmless to mammals, soil organisms and beneficial insects, but toxic to harmful insect pests. Rigorous safety trials have proven Bt eggplant to be an effective means for controlling EFSB without the need for pesticides.
“Farmers are demanding more resilient crops that are higher yielding and safer for them to farm and consume,” Acevedo said. “Bt eggplant delivers on all these fronts.”
The first genetically engineered food crop approved in South Asia, Bt eggplant has grown dramatically in popularity by farmers since it was first introduced in 2014. Studies have shown that farmers growing Bt brinjal, as eggplant is known in Bangladesh, enjoyed increases of 51% in yield and 128% in net revenues, and reductions of 38% in pesticide costs and 12% in reports of pesticide poisonings.
Despite these successes, biotechnology development and adoption remain a contentious issue. As part of the project, the Alliance for Science and Farming Future Bangladesh will address misconceptions about safety and build a scientifically rigorous evidence base linking biotech crops with nutritional security.
“Misinformation has long clouded the regulatory process surrounding genetically engineered crops in many parts of the world, to the detriment of farmers and consumers who crave the same options enjoyed by others,” Evanega said. “The Alliance for Science is excited to help build the technical capacity of Bangladesh scientists so they can lead their own plant breeding research that reflects the needs and priorities of their country and its citizens.”
Local partnerships in the private and public sectors will help achieve sustainability of the technologies and engage directly with farmers and policymakers in Bangladesh and the Philippines. Public partners include the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation and the Department of Agricultural Extension. Private sector partners include Sathguru, Mahyco, Supreme Seed Company, ACI Agribusiness and Farming Future Bangladesh
The new funding continues longstanding work by Cornell and its partners in Bangladesh and the Philippines. Cornell led a consortium of public and private institutions in Asia and Africa for the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II. In 2015, Cornell led the Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership to accelerate the development, deregulation and dissemination of Bt eggplant in Bangladesh and the Philippines.
About Feed the Future
Feed the Future is America’s initiative to combat global hunger and poverty. It brings partners together to help some of the world’s poorest countries harness the power of agriculture and entrepreneurship to jumpstart their economies and create new opportunities. For more information, visit feedthefuture.gov