Bt Brinjal, Beyond Boundaries

Aparna Arora, Marlo Asis, Arif Hossain

November 3, 2015

Photo by Arif Hossain

Solanum melongena L., more commonly known as eggplant or brinjal, is a vegetable with worldwide importance.

It can be oval, elongated, or round; striped or plain-colored, ranging from shades of purple, green, yellow or white.

Eggplant is used in international cuisines and is a favorite ingredient in many Asian delicacies.

As versatile vegetables, eggplants are boiled, stewed, roasted, pickled, fried, or baked. In the Philippines, eggplant is a popular ingredient in dishes such as pinakbet, torta, sinigang, ensalada, and kare-kare.

In Bangladesh, families celebrating Iftar during the holy month of Ramadan traditionally serve Beguni – a fried appetizer cooked from eggplant.

Indian cuisine takes pride in its bhurta, eggplant curry, baghare baingan or eggplant masala, which are all-time favorites.

In Bangladesh eggplant ranks as third largest produced vegetable, next only to potato and onion, in terms of yield and area of cultivation.

In the Philippines, eggplant is an economically important food crop that is vital to the domestic vegetable industry. The archipelago is the seventh top eggplant producer in the world.

Eggplant is native to India, and is known as the country s king of vegetables. India is the world s second largest producer of the fruit after China, and is produced in states like Maharashtra, Haryana, West Bengal, Gujarat, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Orissa.

Smallholder farmers from all over these three countries Philippines, India, and Bangladesh grow eggplant and depend on it for their livelihood.

Begun in Bangladesh

There are almost 8 million brinjal farmers in the country, fulfilling the demand of about 160 million people. Unlike other vegetable crops, brinjal requires extreme care to attain satisfactory yield.

Resource limitation, high production cost, climate change, pest attack, and diseases are some challenges faced by brinjal farmers in Bangladesh. These problems must be overcome in order to sell the grown crops at a good price.

Attack by the Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB) insect is an inevitable reality of Bangladeshi brinjal farmers. To protect their brinjal, farmers are compelled to spray pesticide for 80-100 times in a single cropping season. Almost half of eggplant production cost goes to pesticides, and more than 47% farmers misuse the pesticide; this can adversely affect the soil, water, environment and biodiversity. Moreover, about 87% of farmers do not use protective measures while spraying pesticide in the field.

There was no potential solution for this paradox of Bangladeshi brinjal farmers until the country s public research institute, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), developed FSB resistant Bt brinjal varieties. Bangladesh made a historic step on October 30, 2013 by releasing four genetically engineered eggplant varieties [BARI Bt brinjal 1 to 4] for commercial cultivation after its long-term research since 2005.

Twenty farmers initially received seedlings from BARI in 2014, cultivating the country s first GM crop. This provided scientific evidence that Bt technology worked in brinjal. Farmers were able to grow brinjal without spraying pesticide for FSB. The result became more evident in 2015 when 108 farmers received seedlings from BARI and grew Bt brinjal. Importantly, these varieties are open pollinated, meaning the Bt brinjal seeds can be kept and re-planted in the future.

As a public research institute, BARI provided seedlings and all necessary information to the farmers free of cost. This year, more than 200 farmers will receive seedlings from BARI and farmers who planted during the first two years also share seed with their neighbors.

Bangladesh is expecting a successful adoption of Bt brinjal as farmers reap the benefit from the four released varieties. BARI has already submitted application for the approval of three more Bt brinjal varieties and in the future will apply for the approval of two more.

Farmers and consumers alike are welcoming this new crop, which is good for health, the environment, and is cost effective. India as a neighboring country, and also the Philippines, are now thinking more deeply about the commercial release of Bt brinal; these two countries initially embargoed the technology following the pressure of Anti-GMO lobby and activists.

Bt brinjal proved to be a success in Bangladesh, which is paving a comfortable path for other GM crop research and commercialization in the country.

Arif Hossain, Bangladesh

Talong in the Philippines

Edgar Talasan, a middle aged farmer from Bukidnon province, has been planting eggplant for the past fifteen years. He owns one hectare of land but uses only a tenth of the total area for agriculture.

The fruit and shoot borer pest is one of the biggest problems an eggplant farmer encounters in his field, he confessed.

A farmer would usually spray a cocktail of chemical pesticides (Lanate, Parapest, Malathion and Prevathon) in his field twice a week to control the damaging insect.

Edgar has tried practicing organic farming methods, but he has been forced to use chemical pesticide sprays to stop the devastation brought by the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB) in his crops.

I tried organic farming but it proved to be a failure, so I decided to return to the practice of spraying [pesticides] in order to provide food for my family and send my children to school, he said.

Nevertheless, spraying the toxic chemicals would not totally eliminate the EFSB pests. Some would survive.

Edgar spoke of one painfully memorable experience while spraying pesticides. He felt the detrimental effects of pesticides when he collapsed in the field while spraying the eggplants with Silicron (a highly poisonous chemical). The pesticides contained in the backpack sprayer he was using leaked on his back, directly exposing his skin to the noxious chemical.

Aside from the health hazards, the cost of buying pesticides is also a genuine concern. Adding to production cost is the pesticide expenses that can run as high as PhP 500 per spray for 2,500 hills.

Buying pesticides to kill the pests constitute the biggest amount in producing eggplant, Edgar said.

He learned about Bt eggplant when he attended an educational trip held at the University of the Philippines (a state-owned university that developed the said GE crop), organized by the International Services for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

I ve learned how biotech crops are made and I know that those are safe for human consumption. In my understanding, Bt eggplant is a great help for a farmer like me to raise my income and improve the life of my family and local community. I m hoping to access Bt eggplant seeds and be able to plant it in the future, said Edgar.

Edgar is one of some 100 farmers asking President Benigno S. Aquino III to allow them to start planting the banned Bt eggplant, believing it will reduce health-harmful pesticide spraying and will improve consumers, farmers, and environmental health.

By signing a Declaration of Support (DOS), farmers mostly planting eggplant from San Pablo City, Laguna and Sariaya, Quezon assert they need the Bt eggplant seeds to become more successful.

We realize that Bt eggplant, which contains the gene similar to the insect resistant Bt corn, can bring benefits to their respective farming communities such as higher yield and income, reduced chemical pesticide use, and improved environmental health, they said in the signed DOS.

However, the farmers are up against a Writ of Kalikasan with Temporary Environmental Protection Order against the genetically modified Bt eggplant issued by the Court of Appeals (CA), and they expect the Supreme Court to reverse the CA order, which effectively banned Bt eggplant field trials, consequently the seeds commercial release.

I am hoping that one day, the eyes of the judiciary will be opened and they will see our suffering. I hope the magistrates of our court will listen to the earnest plea of the poor farmers like me to have access to modern innovations like Bt eggplant, Edgar said.

Marlo Asis, Philippines

Beigan in India

Marginal farmers with small land holdings and limited resources grow a large number of brinjal varieties. Brinjal is a significant and steady income-earning crop for about 1.4 million farmers, planted 2 to 3 times in a year.

Fruit and Shoot Borer larvae are small but destructive pests, causing heavy losses to Brinjal growing farmers. This leaves farmers all over India to never feel secure.

Every year, farmers spend heavily on insecticide sprays, losing yields to insect-pests, and incurring heavy losses. Frequent and heavy use of insecticide spraying presents health hazards, for those eating this heavily consumed food.

Farmer Harvinder Singh, Punjab, suggests, Our biggest problem is disease and insect-pest infestation. We resort to repeated insecticides spraying.

If we do not spray insecticides, we will not get a single brinjal, says Farmer Rao Saheb DevIngole, of Maharashtra.

Most farmers echo the same sentiments around heavy use of pesticides. The farmers are heavily suffering, as there are no hybrid varieties that are resistant to fruit and shoot borer. There is no effective ways to control this destructive insect. The estimated crop loss of this pest is as high as 60-70%. Farmers spray insecticides 80-100 times in a single crop cycle yet the outcome is dismal.

Perhaps the answer lies in biotechnology. Can India and Philippines emulate what Bangladesh has done with Bt brinjal?

Aparna Arora, India

While geographic considerations, cultural practices, and agronomic methods vary considerably in the three aforementioned Asian countries, farmers share a common burden: that of a pest called the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB).

Eggplant production suffers from significant yield losses due to the said malignant pest and the small farmers are the ones carrying the burden.

To address this problem, scientists and researchers from the three countries developed a FSB-resistant eggplant also known as Bt eggplant, in partnership with the Indian Maharasthra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. (Mahyco) and Cornell University, and with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII), and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Bangladeshi farmers have started planting. There s a pending court case in the Philippines and a strong Anti-GMO movement in India preventing farmers and consumers alike in both countries from gaining the bountiful benefits that Bt eggplant offers beyond borders.

Hopefully, in the near future when the public is already aware of the bounty beyond borders, Filipino and Indian farmers can emulate the Bangladeshi farmers