UP professor lashes back at critics, defends controversial Bt eggplant

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/11 Dec) – The University of the Philippines (UP) professor who headed the Bt Eggplant field testing here lashed back at critics, saying there is nothing to be scared of the Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt), the soil bacterium inserted in the eggplant genes by Indian scientists to produce Bt Eggplant.

Bacillus Thuringiensis is a friendly bacteria, certainly not pathogenic, and inhabiting the soil,” said Dr. Eufemio Rasco, described by UP as one of Mindanao’s “most senior” scientists. “Humans and plants have been cohabiting with it for a long time, probably we’ve been eating Bt even before Bt Eggplant,” he said amidst the loud cheering of students at the Lorenzo Hall of UP Mindanao on Thursday afternoon.

Environment groups have widely criticized the Bt Eggplant field test for failing to go through a full complement of risk assessment tests to ensure that the scientific breakthrough is safe. But Rasco said there is nothing to worry about.

“The bacterium has been with us (humans) for over a hundred years,” said Rasco. “In fact, if you want to ask me which is more scary, the Bt Spray or the Bt Eggplant, I would be more afraid of the Bt Spray,” he said, referring to the spray derived from the same organism used by organic vegetable farmers.

Rasco, who was still smarting from the hostile reception of the Bt Eggplant in a predominantly anti-GMO crowd at the Ateneo de Davao University forum in September, basked in the students’ loud cheering as he delivered his lecture. He also told reporters to listen to his speech because “little knowledge can be dangerous,” and even searched for the Sunstar Davao reporter in his audience for the “negative” reports on Bt Eggplant.

“There’s nothing basically bad about bacterium, they live inside us and they are useful,” said Rasco, who complained that 9 of 10 stories about Bt Eggplant which came out of the internet were “negative ones.”

“Even organic farmers want Bt, we know this bacterium since 1901, when its insecticidal property, coming from the protein it produced, was discovered. We’ve been using it as biological insecticide since the 1950s, that’s how much knowledge we have accumulated about it,” Rasco said. “In terms of performance, it also delivers.”

“Let’s look at the problem and the problem is the eggplant fruit and shoot borer,” he said, “The solution is Bt Eggplant.”

Earlier, the Go Organic Mindanao expressed fear that the field tests, conducted in an open air and protected only by cyclone wire, might contaminate the homegrown eggplant varieties through insect pollinators. Rasco said that UP Mindanao has erected both physical and biological traps. “There are two types of confinement to ensure that both the seeds and the pollen will not be taken out,” Rasco said.

Research professor Desiree Hautea of UP Los Baños also explained eggplants are a self-pollinated crop, where both the female and male live in one body. “When the flower opens, it is already fertilized so it could no longer be fertilized. But she did not discount the “occasional possibility” of cross pollination because of insect pollinators.

“The physical confinement will prevent people and animals from bringing away the viable materials (the pollens and seeds) out of the site, that’s why we erected fences (made of cyclone wire). But for insects (which might cross pollinate the Bt Eggplant with the local varieties), we erected biological traps, by surrounding the transplanted rows of Bt Eggplants with five rows of non-Bt Eggplants,” Hautea said.

She also explained that the biological trap will prevent cross pollination, because insects will stop at the rows of the non-Bt Eggplant first before going to the rows of genetically-modified eggplants.

She also said that the nearest eggplant crops in the neighborhood are 200 meters away, according to the requirements of the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI). Hautea said the distance is “too far for the insect pollinators to travel.”

“We know for a fact that they can be contained,” said Hautea. “Bt Talong (Eggplant) is safe because the technology used is safe. It should be given a chance because it will help the farmers. We need to give our farmers better alternative to pesticides.”

But environment groups opposed to the genetically-modified eggplant said a landmark study in Africa actually showed that pollinator bees can actually travel much farther, to six kilometers.

Anna Bolo, Interface development Interventions Inc. (IDIS) research advocacy officer, cited the study by project scientist Remy S. Pasquet in Africa which used radio tracking to monitor insect pollinators, particularly Xylocopa flavorufa or carpenter bee.

Carpenter bees, which are also found in the Philippines, have been described by the United States Department of Agriculture website as “excellent pollinators of eggplant, tomato and other vegetables and flowers.”

“Bees can visit flowers as far as six kilometers away from their nest,” Pasquet said in a study conducted by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), an international scientific research institute headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. The study was made in collaboration with the French Institut de Recherche pour le Development (IRD) and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last September 2009.

“This study is significant in the local debate on the planned field testing of Bt Eggplant,” said Bolo.

“From complete flight records in which bees visited wild and domesticated plant populations, we concluded that bees can mediate gene flow and potentially allow transgenes to escape over several kilometers,” Pasquet was quoted in the research, conducted as a result of the planned release of a genetically-engineered cowpea in Africa, which is resistant to insects.

Rasco, however, said that those who will “benefit” from Bt Eggplant are consumers, farmers, the environment (because there will be less pollution) and “UP because it’s the work of UP to make everyone happy,” he said.

He also scoffed at the “precautionary principle” earlier raised by the Go Organic Movement in opposing the field tests of the Bt Eggplant.

“They are saying, ‘better safe than sorry,'” Rasco said. “This principle has been originally developed when talking about toxic waste and the atomic bomb, but we are not talking about toxic wastes here,” he said.

“As (Dr. Randy) Hautea revealed, we’ve been using it (genetically-modified crops) in the last 14 years. The precautionary principle does not apply here.” Hautea, the global coordinator of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), said in another lecture that the world’s production and consumption of genetically-modified crops has been growing in the last 14 years.

Rasco likened the precautionary principle to Goliath using heavy shields in a fight against David. “Sabi ni Goliath, better be safe than sorry, and well we knew, he is not safe and now, he is deader than sorry,” Rasco said, amidst cheers of students.

Indian scientist Dr. Puspha Bhargava, one of the pioneering scientists in genetic engineering, earlier warned that adverse effects of biotechnology in food can only manifest 20 years later, the reason he advised Filipinos to adopt the precautionary principle before accepting new GMO breakthroughs. (Germelina Lacorte / MindaNews)