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SHOULD WE TRUST BIOTECHNOLOGY?: THE CASE OF BT EGGPLANT Wencey Anne O.

Mallapre

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are organisms in which DNA are altered through the process of genetic recombination (World Health Organization, 2013). Genetic recombination is the introduction of new traits to an organism by merging genes isolated from the chromosomes of different organisms and inserting them into the chromosome of another organism (Prakash, 2010; Human Genome Project Information). Currently, the scientific community gives much attention to research on genetic recombination and the development of these genetically modified organisms due to the large number of possible benefits that such a technology can offer. In agricultural countries such as the Philippines, research on genetic recombination is focused on the development of genetically modified (GM) crops which exhibit improved productivity, enhanced nutritional value, and pest-resistance which controls excessive use of pesticides. (Prakash, 2010; The World Conservation Union, 2007). Some examples of GM crops developed are Bt cotton and Bt corn which are altered through the insertion of a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis which contains a protein with an insecticidal property. Such an alteration has positive health effects due to reduction of pesticide use (Prakash, 2010; The World Conservation Union, 2007). The technology of genetic recombination proposes many benefits in the field of agriculture but many are still unconvinced regarding the safety of GM crops to humans, animals, and the environment (Prakash, 2010). Some people and even some scientists assert that the use of genetically modified crops should be discouraged since the knowledge on GM crops is not yet enough to prove that it is indeed harmless to health and the environment (The World Conservation Union, 2007).

Even in the Philippines, there is a growing concern regarding the consumption of genetically modified crops. Greenpeace Philippines openly declares in its website that it opposes the consumption of genetically modified organisms because there is insufficient knowledge about its effects on health and the environment (Inquirer News, 2012). The scientist Dr. Tushar Chakraborty expressed that Bt eggplant should be banned in the Philippines since it is unsafe for consumption (Greenpeace Philippines, 2012). Such testimonies from scientists increase the doubts of people on GM crops. Thus, GM crops are never widely accepted by the public and are often controversial. The most recent controversial GM crop in the Philippines is the Bt eggplant which, like all Bt crops, was developed through the integration of the Cry1Ac gene from Bacillus thuringiensis which provides the plant with resistance to its common pest, the fruit and shoot borer (Choudhary & Gaur, 2009). Solanum melongena or eggplant is a member of the nightshade family Solanaceae. Locally, it is commonly known as talong. Eggplant is a popular vegetable worldwide because of the many ways that it can be prepared and its high nutritional value. Due to its popularity and its abundance in the Philippines, it is one of the secondary crops that the country exports to other nations (Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2013). The eggplant production, however, is severely affected by the infestation of the fruit and shoot borer (Leucinodes orbonalis). To get rid of the pests, farmers depend on excessive use of insecticides which results to the high production cost and buildup of residues of insecticide which poses risk to the health of the farmers and the consumers (Bandopadhyay, Chaudhary, & Sinha, 2011; Choudhary & Gaur, 2009; Krishna & Qaim, 2007). To solve this problem, scientists resorted to biotechnology and Bt eggplant was produced. Bt eggplant according to most scientists, is not detrimental to the health of humans and animals. Dr. Candida Adalla reportedly said that Bt eggplant is toxic only to insects like the fruit and shoot borer (Benaning, 2011). But despite this reassurance by the scientific community, Greenpeace Philippines and many other critics of the GM crop filed a petition for a Writ of

Kalikasan to the Supreme Court. Daniel Ocampo, sustainable agriculture campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said that due to the anti-insecticidal gene in Bt eggplant, the GM crop will disrupt local agriculture and natural habitats (Torres, 2012). This possible risk impelled Greenpeace and its supporters to file the petition. The Writ of Kalikasan is a legal remedy that would protect the citizens right to a safe and uncontaminated environment (Torres, 2012; Reformina, 2012). However, Dr. Emil Javier, president of the National Academy of Science and Technology, felt certain that the Supreme Court would side with science (de Roma, 2012). Nevertheless, the Supreme Court granted the petition of Greenpeace and its supporters (Reformina, 2012). This paper aims to prove that Bt eggplant is safe to both the environment and the health of humans and animals so it should be made commercially available in the country because of the possible benefits the citizens may receive from the product of technology. Data gathered and other findings presented in different research studies will be used to support the researchers claim. Anti-GMO organizations such as Greenpeace raise some issues regarding the safety of Bt eggplant. One of the major concerns is its potential to pose risks to human health. Several research results imply negative effects of the consumption of Bt eggplant. For instance, a study conducted by the All India Coordinated Research Program (AIRCP) for Vegetable Crops (as cited in Bandopadhyay et al, 2012) states that the amino acid sequence of the proteins from the Cry-1AC gene inserted to the chromosome of Bt crops is similar to the amino acid sequence of common allergens. This denotes that Bt crops may cause allergic reactions to consumers. This claim is supported by the results of another study from the Madhya Pradesh state of India (as cited in Bandopadhyay et al) which showed that farmers and factory workers exposed to Bt cotton exhibited allergy symptoms like itching, skin eruptions in the body, and swollen faces. According to the results presented, the severity of the allergy symptoms experienced by each individual is related and correlated to the levels of exposure to Bt cotton.

The said study by the AIRCP also provided evidence that the inserted gene may be capable of surviving the strong stomach acids that break down food and protect against potentially harmful foreign objects and substances. The surviving gene then may stay in the human body and may be transferred to intestinal bacteria. (so what? What harm can that do?) As further support to the claim that Bt eggplant pose risks to human health, Gilles-Eric Seralini, President of Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering or CRIIGEN (as cited in Bandopadhyay et al, 2012) said that negative effects were observed on animals that were fed with Bt brinjal (Bt eggplant). According to Seralini, rats fed with Bt brinjal caused diarrhoea, increase in water consumption, and decrease in liver weight and liver to body weight. Seralini also said that lactating cows fed with the genetically modified crop were observed to experience increased weight gain, increase in intake of dry roughage matter, and increased milk production by 10-14% as if it were treated with hormone. Though these effects seem to be positive, consumers may tend to react negatively to Bt eggplant since Seralini indicated that it was as if it [the cows] were treated with hormone. Thi s is due to the past claim that cows treated with hormone, specifically the recombinant bovine growth hormone or rBGH , produce milk that when ingested, may increase the risk for cancer. While the claims implying the potential harm to human health can be convincing, there are scientific support for the claims that refute them. These refutations that are in favor of Bt eggplant consumption should not be neglected because of the scientific evidences that they present. For example, as stated above, there were researches showing that exposure to Bt cotton, a genetic modified crop prepared in the same way as Bt eggplant, elicited allergy symptoms to people exposed to it. Though this may be possible, there are no reports yet that show evidence that antibodies to Bt protein have been produced by the human body (Academics Review). This suggests that the Bt protein is not perceived by the human immune system as an allergen. It may

also be wrong to say it is due to the amino acid sequence of the proteins from the Cry-1AC gene inserted to the chromosome of Bt crops since allergic reactions are due to the hypersensitivity of the immune system of an individual (Seeley et al, 2006) and not by the genetic modification of the crops. Also, though it may be possible that the Bt gene be transferred to intestinal bacteria, this is more likely to happen if the gene is transferred from Bt bacteria to intestinal bacteria rather than from Bt plants to intestinal bacteria (why is it more likely so?). The additional protein would also probably be a burden to intestinal bacteria since it gives the gut flora no selective advantage in surviving the extreme and highly competitive environment in the human stomach. An intestinal bacterium that accepts an active Bt gene can actually be disadvantaged and would not likely survive (American Review). Research also showed that in the gene transfer from plant to microorganism, pathogenicity or the (define pathogenicity) were not transferred, denoting that the transfer of gene from Bt bacteria to intestinal bacteria will not harmful to human health (Aarts, Kleter, & Peijnenburg, 2005). It may also be wrong to claim that Bt eggplant is harmful when ingested since research showed that lactating cows fed with Bt eggplant have increased milk production as if they were treated with hormone which obviously refers to the rBGH. First, cows treated with the rBGH actually produce milk that is safe for the consumption of infants and children, as declared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2009). Therefore, it is not harmful to human health. Second, Bt crops and RBGH may have the same effect on lactating cows but it does not follow that they are both harmful to human health just because one is believed to have adverse effects on consumers. In contrast with the findings of the AIRCP and the CRIIGEN, the study conducted in 2002 by the American Academy of Microbiology (as cited in Choudhary & Gaur, 2009) concluded that the Bt protein in Bt crops does not have similarities with food allergens or toxins

and are, thus, not detrimental to human health even when taken in high doses. The same study also produced laboratory results which showed that birds, fish, and invertebrates were not harmed by the Bt protein, implying that the Bt protein in Bt crops is not toxic. This can be explained by the fact that Bt proteins have specific requirements to be activated as an insecticide. First, it must be ingested to be effective since it is functions as a midgut toxin. Next, the stomach of the organism should have a pH of 9.5 or above. Lastly, cadherin and APN should be present in the cells lining the stomach of the organism. Cadherin and APN are receptors specific for the Bt protein responsible for the insecticidal property of Bt crops. (Choudhary & Gaur, 2009). Non-target organisms, that is, organisms other than insects, lack these receptors so even when they do ingest Bt crops, the Bt protein would not be activated and they will not be affected negatively as insects are since cadherin and APN are present in the gut of insects. Humans, like other non-target organisms, lack these receptors in their stomachs. Also, human stomach acids produce a pH of 2.0 (Seeley, Stephens, & Tate, 2007) which fails to meet the requirement of 9.5 or above. The extremely low pH of the human stomach would fail to activate the Bt protein. Hence, consumption of Bt crops such as Bt eggplant will not be harmful to human health. Another major concern regarding Bt eggplant is its effect on the environment. Some scientists stress that releasing the GM crop would pose a threat to the environment since it might disrupt ecological balance and biodiversity within a short period of time by the hybridization of the GM plant with the wild species (Samuels, 2012). As stated previously, Bt eggplant was created for the purpose of making it resistant to pests. Since the trait was genetically integrated into the plant, it could be passed on to the genetically unaltered eggplant crop or its wild relatives. According to Samuels (2012), acquisition of the pest resistance trait would give the plants selective advantage, resulting to increased weediness or invasiveness. Thus, the transfer of the Bt gene greatly affects the diversity of the eggplant species by limiting the genetic variation of the plant.

Cotter (2011) also stated that by feeding on Bt eggplant, beneficial organisms may also be harmed. As an example, Cotter (2011) showed data from research indicating that there was a decrease in the population of ladybeetles in areas planted with Bt maize compared with the population of ladybeetles in non-Bt maize areas. The reduction in the population of such beneficial organisms would affect the ecosystem negatively as there would be a disruption in the flow energy in food webs. It is true that the hybridization of eggplant and other Solanum species is possible. However, that could only occur if humans intervene since if left alone, 90% of Solanum species reproduce through self-pollination. This is because the pollen grains of Solanum species are sticky and cannot travel long distances since they would readily adhere to any surface that they may come in contact with (Choudhary & Gaur, 2009). Research showed that in field trials of Bt eggplant, there was a decrease in the population of the colorado potato beetle, the target organism, but the decrease did not disturb the population of arthropods in the area of the testing (Edwards, Fiore, Kiss, de Maagd, & Vidal, 2010). Another research showed that Cry1A proteins had no direct negative effects observed on lacewing larvae (Avilla, Bakker, Ferre, de Maagd, Mottholf, Simon & Zamora, 2006). Thus, Bt eggplant would not be harmful to organisms other than the target pests. The Bt eggplant may have its disadvantages but the possible occurrence of these disadvantages is countered by research results and scientific facts. Hence, Bt eggplant will not cause problems to either health and the environment. Aside from this, Bt eggplant has a lot of advantages which stems from its genetically acquired trait of pest-resistance. These advantages should be considered when deciding whether to make the GM crop commercially available in the country because in contrast with the claims of anti-GMO organizations, Bt eggplant may actually benefit a lot of people and the environment as well.

One advantage from Bt eggplant is the improvement of health. Bt eggplant is not just safe for consumption it actually protects human health. According to Krishna and Qaim (2007), repeated application of pesticides on eggplants often results in buildup of residues and as studies denote, high levels of insecticide residues can be dangerous to the health of consumers. Pesticides were found to cause cancer, reproductive harm, endocrine disruption, and even headaches and nausea (Toxics Action Center). It was also reported that even farmers experienced negative effects from the use of pesticides. According to Francisco, Maupin, and Norton (2009), 46% of farmers who used chemical pesticides experienced dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, loose bowel movement, and itchiness. Bt eggplant is a genetically modified crop that has a built-in insecticide against the fruit and shoot borer, a common pest to eggplants. This Bt crop was developed to reduce, if not eliminate, the excessive use of pesticides on eggplant. The use of Bt eggplant will greatly reduce the use of toxic pesticides which are harmful to human health (Francisco et al, 2009; Fakhrul Islam & Norton, 2007). Aside from the reduction in the use of pesticides, the use of Bt eggplant will also lead to cheaper prices of eggplant in the market which may cause an increase in the consumption of eggplant which is a nutritious food. In a study conducted by Krishna & Qaim (2007), it was expected that upon the adoption of the Bt technology in eggplant farming, market prices of the crop will drop by 15% and consumption will increase by 4%. Simply put, the lower the price, the more it will be available to and patronized by more people. This will have a positive effect since more and more people will have access to safe, nutritious, and residue-free food. Other than health improvement, the use of Bt eggplant would also help in the preservation of the environment. Since Bt eggplant, if allowed to be commercially available in the country, will probably reduce the use of pesticides by 80%, it may help in the control of pollution, especially of the contamination of the soil and groundwater by the chemicals pesticides (Choudhary & Gaur, 2009; Krishna & Qaim, 2007).

The use of Bt eggplant can also limit the organisms that can be affected its antiinsecticidal protein, unlike pesticides which harms not only the target pests but also, other organisms which may be beneficial to the plant and to the ecosystem (Choudhary & Gaur, 2009). In one study, it was found that Bt toxin and Bt maize did not affect common soil invertebrates while a significant effect on the said organisms were noted when pesticides were applied. (Andersen, Cortet, Dzeroski, Griffiths, Krogh, Messean, Vauflery, & Wesseler, 2010). Thus, Bt eggplant may help in protecting organisms other than pests from being harmed by chemical pesticides. In fact, the study by Francisco et al (2009) presented that the use of Bt eggplant will avoid risks to farm animals by 19.02%, birds by 21.37%, and beneficial insects by 18.67%. Bt eggplant would also be a significant help to the agriculture sector, especially the eggplant farmers who will directly benefit once the GM crop is made commercially available in the country. According to Francisco (2009), eggplant farmers are willing to adopt Bt eggplant even if its seed is more expensive than the current varieties. The farmers said that the infestation of the fruit and shoot borer on their crop reduced the product yield by less than 50%, greatly affecting the profitability of the product. Thus, they would be willing to pay more for the seed of Bt eggplant since Francisco (2009) predicts that the adoption of the GM crop would most likely increase crop production by 47%. This expectation of increase in crop production was deduced from the data gathered that the amount of pesticides used to combat the fruit and shoot borer will be reduced to 80% which means that there will be a total of 47% decrease in pesticide use (Krishna & Qaim, 2007). The decrease in pesticide use would decrease the cost of pesticide use by 47% and would also decrease the cost of hired labor for the application of pesticide by 10 to 25%, leading to a greater crop productivity and thus, greater profit (Francisco, 2009). Lastly, since there will be a positive effect in crop production, consumers, too, will benefit. If the farmers were productive, there will be more eggplant crops available in the market which may result to a decrease in the market price of the vegetable. The consumers will then have access to eggplant free from pesticide residue, leading to a positive nutritional benefit.

The data gathered by the researcher implies that more research should be conducted on the topic. The contradiction in the various claims presented in this paper shows that the scientific community has not yet arrived to a final conclusion regarding the safety of Bt eggplant. Therefore, to truly determine whether Bt eggplant would be a risky solution to the problem of pest infestation or not, more research on Bt eggplant should be done. The contradictions would also mean confusion among the people. Thus, there is a need to provide the people concerned, that is, the farmers and the consumers, with unbiased information about Bt eggplant. Information about the results obtained from the separate research studies conducted by pro-GMO and anti-GMO communities should be made accessible to the public so that the people will have a choice to use the GM crop or not. Farmers should also be educated about the possible benefits of using Bt eggplant and the possible risks that come with it. In this paper, the researcher aimed to prove that Bt eggplant should be allowed to be commercially available in the country. Results from several studies conducted about Bt eggplant were gathered and presented. The findings indicated that though the use of Bt eggplant may have its disadvantages, these can be refuted by data collected from research and scientific facts. It also has advantages that will benefit both farmers and consumers. Bt eggplant can also help in the preservation of the environment, the protection of beneficial organisms from the harm caused by the application of chemical pesticides, and the improvement health.

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