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Bt eggplant protein targets only insects, not human – expert

February 18, 2011

February 16, 2011, 3:20pm

MANILA, Philippines – Dr. Candida Adalla has assured consumers that the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant being tested here produces proteins on its skin that are toxic only to insects like borers.

Adalla, chief of the Biotechnology Program Office (BPO) of the Department of Agriculture (DA), stressed this should be emphasized in the wake of spirited opposition to the the field trial of Bt eggplant at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao (UPMin) campus in Bago Oshiro, Davao City and six other sites nationwide.

The DA biotech chief noted the criticisms aired against the bacterium have been laced with unscientific arguments from foreign sources while the information on Bt eggplant have been borne by field testing and biotechnology research.

She noted that Bt is present in Philippine soil and it had been used for 110 years without any deleterious effect on humans and it is tragic for the oppositors to argue that it would dangerous in the coming years.

In particular, she urged those who oppose Bt eggplant, particularly Dr. Romeo Quijano, to understand that the toxin in Bt eggplant is directed against pests and not against humans.

“Dr. Quijano should know that the toxin in Bt is very specific to insects and is in fact only against lepidopterans. If he knows his biochemistry, he should know that: (1) Proteins break up when heated so when we cook eggplant, its proteins also break up; (2) human and insect guts differ in pH and that the Bt proteins do not stand highly acidic conditions characteristic of the human gut but would be very active in a highly basic insect gut, and; no known binding receptors exist in the gut, and scientists continue to study this. Maybe Dr. Quijano should help in this aspect as a medical doctor to unravel the human gut receptors for Bt toxins. Fear of the unknown is not a reasonable answer to real poverty and hunger,” Adalla counseled.

She also dismissed rejected allegations that the commercialization of Bt eggplant would lead to a “loss of biodiversity.”

Adalla, former dean of the UP College of Agriculture from 2000 to 2007, said it is highly debatable if, indeed, there are many native varieties of eggplant in the country.

This being the case, how could there be loss of biodiversity, she asked.

“I agree that we should conserve and preserve our native varieties. More than anyone else, we in the academe and research institutions have the highest vested interest in it and that is why we make sure that germplasm collections are given attention and priorioty as far as our resources allow. On this issue, we are aligned and we assure them that we are doing our best,” Adalla added.

Nonetheless, the DA biotech expert said the fear of Bt eggplant crossing over to “infect” native varities looks exaggerated. “Did you realize that even open pollinated and regular hybrids are capable of doing this. Why zero in on Bt eggplant,” Adalla asked.

She noted that the problem really is that oppositors of Bt eggplant are advocates of organic eggplant who want nothing of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in the farms.

If they are intent on pushing organic certification, then they should work on the allowable contamination level. “It will be a big joke if the certification body would require 100 percent native variety,” Adalla said.

“As a democratic country, the rights of organic farmers are the same as those of traditional farmers and those adopt modern farming techniques,” she stressed. (Marvyn Benaning)

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