PHL okays Bt ‘talong’ for farming

Fruit-and-shoot-borer infested non-Bt eggplant (left) and FSB-resistant Bt eggplant.

Filipino farmers can finally plant the borer-resistant Bt ‘talong’ (eggplant) after the Philippine government approved its commercial cultivation on October 18—almost two decades since the start of its development in the country.

The Bureau of Plant Industry of the Department of Agriculture (DA-BPI) granted the “Biosafety Permit for Commercial Propagation (No. 22-001 Propa)” of Bt eggplant (Event EE-1) to the University of the Philippines Los Baños, John Albert Caraan, project development officer of the Bt Eggplant Project of the Institute of Plant Breeding at the College of Agriculture and Food Science of University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB-CAFS-IPB), said in a news release.

The approval was pursuant to the decision made by the Departments of Agriculture, Science and Technology, Environment and Natural Resources, Health and Interior and Local Government Joint Department Circular 1, Series of 2021.

The regulatory approval came after strict and comprehensive biosafety evaluations conducted by the Joint Assessment Group composed of representatives from Competent National Authorities-Biosafety Committees, Caraan said.

It was also based on the certification of the Event EE-1 as a Plant Incorporated Protectant (Group 11A Insecticide) by the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority, he added.

Before its approval for commercial propagation, the DA-BPI also approved Bt eggplant for direct use as food, feed, or for processing on affirming its safety for consumption on July 21, 2021.

With this regulatory landmark, “the Philippines becomes the second country in the world, after Bangladesh, to allow the commercial propagation of borer-resistant Bt eggplant,” Caraan said. The project started in the Philippines in 2003.

“The biosafety approval for commercial propagation allows us to scale up our operations and ensure the availability of the Bt eggplant seeds in the coming years,” said Dr. Lourdes Taylo, the current lead of the Bt Eggplant Project in the Philippines.

After the biosafety approval for commercial propagation of Bt Eggplant, priority activities will include seed production, varietal registration and farm demonstrations.

Besides the pilot planting, an extensive growers’ education program will be launched as part of the product stewardship activities within the following year.

Caraan explained that Bt eggplant contains a natural protein from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, making it resistant to fruit and shoot borer (EFSB), eggplant’s most devastating insect pest.

Bt protein targets specifically the EFSB larvae, but is safe for humans, animals and other nontarget arthropods (or insects, invertebrate animals having an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and paired jointed appendages), he pointed out.

It is safe not only for consumption but also for the environment, Caraan said based on various scientific evidence.

He cited that eggplant varieties containing the event EE-1 are unlikely to pose greater risks to the environment when cultivated in open fields, as compared to their non-Bt eggplant counterparts, based on a 2016 study conducted in the Philippines on the impact of Bt eggplants to nontarget arthropods.

The study also said that Bt eggplant can be an integral component of integrated pest management program particularly of EFSB, while dramatically reducing the dependence on conventional insecticides.

Caraan further explained that ex-ante socio-economic studies conducted in the Philippines estimated that the cultivation of Bt eggplants will incur lower production costs and ultimately lead to up to three-fold higher net farm incomes due to the combined effects of significantly reduced pesticide use and increased marketable fruit yields.

Eggplant farming is a big industry in the country, valued at P5.1 billion in 2017. It is a major source of farmers’ income but it suffers from damages brought by pests and diseases, Clement Dionglay said in a report on International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications’ (ISAAA) web site in November 2020.

Yield losses due to FSB range from 51 percent to 73 percent, prompting Filipino eggplant farmers to frequently spray chemical insecticides almost daily, or up to 80 times per cropping season, the ISAAA web site said on September 23, 2020.

This costs farmers almost 20 percent to 40 percent of the total production cost for chemical insecticides. Besides spraying, it is also a common practice among Filipino farmers to dip unharvested eggplant fruits in a cocktail of chemicals to ensure the marketability of their crops, ISAAA said.

The average potential net benefit of planting Bt eggplant in the Philippines is P272,000 ($6,243)/ha, higher than conventional varieties in the province of Pangasinan, and P120,000 ($2,753)/ha in Camarines Sur, ISAAA said based on a 2014 research edited by Gerpacio, R.V. and A.P. Aquino.

This significant increase in profit is due to increased marketable yield and reduced pesticide use. It was projected that there will be 48 percent reduction in pesticide application per hectare. This can be translated to 19.5 percent lower environmental footprint compared to nonadopters.

Besides increase in income, significant health and environmental benefits will be realized from the big reduction in pesticide use.

Assuming a 50 percent adoption rate, the benefits of Bt eggplant to human health is valued at P2.5 million ($57,353) per year, while the collective benefits to farm animals, beneficial insects and bird is estimated to be P6.8 million ($155,841) per year, the research said.

At the same time, eggplant is an important vegetable in the Philippines because it is rich in dietary fiber, a good source of vitamins and minerals, and is one of the most common and popular vegetables preferred and consumed by all over the country.

The Bt Eggplant Project in the Philippines was as a public-private partnership engagement among the UPLB-IPB, Indian Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Pvt Ltd and Cornell University, with funding support from USAID (through the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II and Feed the Future Eggplant Improvement Project), DA-Biotechnology Program Office and DA-Bureau of Agriculture Research.

The project was supported by the ISAAA, Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture, UPLB-CAFS and the UPLB Foundation Inc.

Image credits: ABSP II project



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