THINK ON THESE: No Frankenstein food

If you are told that the food you are going to eat contain genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), will you eat it?
You may answer it negatively as Western press consider GMOs as Frankenstein food. This horrendous description came from a Mary Shelly novel that tells the story of a young scientist who creates a grotesque but sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment.

In other words, foods that contain GMOs are not safe to eat. But such claim is preposterous. The World Health Organization (WHO), the authority directing and coordinating health within the United Nations system, has pointed out: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

This is even true to Bt talong, an eggplant that is spliced with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). “Bt talong was developed by genetically engineering a gene from the bacteria so that the GM eggplants now produce a protein that defends it against insect attacks,” explained Dr. Michael Purugganan, a Filipino plant geneticist who is the Dean of Science at the New York University.

But that’s going ahead of the story.

Eggplant is one of the most popular fruit vegetables among Filipinos. Unfortunately, the crop is susceptible to pests, particularly eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB). “The worm of the insect bore tunnels in the fruit, rendering them unfit for consumption,” said Dr. Emil Q. Javier, former secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

This pest does not only kill the plants but also renders the fruits inedible and non-marketable. So pernicious is the pest that farmers have to throw away 50% to 70% of their harvest.

Now, to get rid of the income-sapping pest, farmers have to spray the plants with chemical pesticides. When infestation is so bad, they have to spray them with chemicals every other day. There are those who even dipped each hanging eggplant fruit into a container full of chemicals.

Are there other ways of beating the pest? Sure, there are; to name a few: manual removal of infested shoots, crop rotation, intercropping, using nylon net barriers, trapping of the male using pheromones, applied either singly or in an integrated manner.

But all these alternatives are “labor-intensive and generally ineffective,” to quote the words of Dr. Asuncion K. Raymundo and Dr. Rita P. Laude, who conducted some studies on eggplant.

But there’s a better way that is not only environment-friendly but also feasible economically. And that is to introduce Bt, a common soil bacterium, into the vegetable crop.

Bt reportedly produces a protein that paralyzes the larvae of some harmful insects, including EFSB. “When ingested by the larvae of the target insect, the Bt protein is activated in the gut’s alkaline condition and punctures the mid-gut leaving the insect unable to eat. The insect dies within a few days,” explains Dr. Desiree Hautea of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Bt is present in the Philippine soil and had been in use for years without any harmful effects. As it comes from the earth itself, Bt is very natural, according to Dr. Emiliana Bernardo, an entomologist or a scientist who studies insects. In 1901, Bt was discovered to have an insecticidal property. By 1950s, it became a well-known biological insecticide.

In her landmark novel, “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson recommended Bt as a biological pesticide because it has much less environment impact than conventional chemical pesticides.

The development of Bt talong was spearheaded by the Institute of Plant Breeding (IBP) at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB). Bt talong has undergone extensive and rigorous research with particular attention paid to risk procedures and assessments to ensure its safety and utility.

Research commended in 2003 in the laboratory and contained experiment was done from 2007 to 2009 under the supervision of the National Biosafety Committee of the Philippines. From 2010 to 2012, field trials were conducted in Laguna, Pangasinan, Camarines Sur and North Cotabato.

According to Dr. Cynthia T. Hedreyda, of the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in UP Diliman, the development of Bt talong “involves exactly the same procedures, the same principle… by previously approved and currently used genetically modified corn, cotton and soybean, which are already planted worldwide and approved in the country.”

Thanks to Bt talong, it is now possible to produce no toxin-laden eggplants. Based on field trials conducted by IPB scientists in barangays Paitan and Sta. Maria in Pangasinan, it was found that EFSB can be stamped out by up to 100%.

During the dry season, the fields were infested heavily by the FSB moth. The IPB scientists did not use any lepidopteran (moth)-specific insecticide during the three trials – both or the Bt talong and the non-Bt talong.

All throughout three trials, the superior efficacy of Bt eggplant in stopping by virtually 100% infestation of FSB was observed in the three eggplant varieties tested. “These results demonstrate that Bt eggplant provide outstanding control of EFSB and can dramatically reduce the need for conventional insecticides,” said Dr. Hautea, who headed the study.

In contrast, the non-Bt eggplant suffered 41.58% FSB-damaged shoots, 93.08% damaged fruits, and 16.15 larvae per plot per harvest.

And even when moth’s eggs were found in the Bt talong fruits, the eggs did not survive to form viable fruit-boring insects.

“Commercial production of Bt eggplant has great potential to reduce yield losses to EFSB while dramatically reducing the reliance of growers on synthetic insecticides, reducing risks to the environment, to worker’s health, and to the consumer,” the IBP scientists concluded.