Written by the Web Team
Numerous studies and tests show that biotechnology and its products, specifically crops being grown and studied in the Philippines, are safe and helpful to humans. These products are not dangerous. They are, in fact, developed to reduce cost, improve quality, and reduce environmental damage due to input-intensive conventional cropping systems.
In the forum Straight from the scientists: the facts about delayed ripening papaya, Bt eggplant, and Golden Rice held at the Drilon Hall of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) last August 26, three of the Philippines’ leading biotechnology scientists working on various controversial genetically modified (GM) crops spoke on the technical process undergone by these crops as well as other social and cultural factors. They warned that the real danger lies not in the crops themselves, but in the lack of credible and correct information.
Dr. Evelyn Mae Tecson-Mendoza of the Institute of Plant Breeding of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB-IPB) spoke about delayed ripening papaya; Dr. Desiree Hautea, also from UPLB-IPB, discussed Bt eggplant, while Dr. Antonio Alfonso of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) expounded beta-carotene-producing Golden Rice.
More than 100 participants, mostly students, farmers, and media practitioners, attended the forum. Concerns over the safety of the tests for human use, environment, and awareness of the communities near the test areas concerned the audience. They also wondered when the GM products would be commercially available, and if the crops would be labeled as GM.
The scientists allayed fears and clarified misconceptions about GM crops and warned against misinformation.
Dr. Tecson-Mendoza said IPB is now in the process of developing delayed-ripening papaya that is resistant to ring-spot virus (PRSV). The initial project assisted by the Australian government developed a papaya variety with a 14-day shelf life, or double the usual 6 days.
The scientists achieved this by suppressing the generation of key enzyme in the ethylene biosynthesis pathway – ACC synthase – through genetic manipulation. ACC synthase triggers ethylene production, which causes ripening in fruits.
They started collaborating with Dr, Ramon Botella of the University of Queensland (UQ) 10 years ago by sending two scientists to UQ for postgraduate training. Dr. Antonio Laurena isolated and cloned the ripening ACC synthase gene from the local Solo papaya variety, while Dr. Pablito Magdalita optimized the conditions for transformation and tissue culture of papaya. The transformed papaya plants were grown in biosafety level 2 screenhouses at UPLB upon their return, with successful laboratory test results in 2004.
Losses from PRSV can be anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of total harvest.
According to Dr. Hautea, eggplant is the most important vegetable crop in the Philippines, but it is prone to fruit and shoot borer attacks. She said numerous studies confirmed that eggplants with the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene are safe for human consumption and the environment.
Bt is a common soil-borne bacterium that has been in use for more than 100 years with no known harmful effects. She explained that the toxin is only activated under alkaline (basic) conditions such as those that exist inside lepidoteran (fruit and shoot borer) stomachs. The toxin will never activate in humans and other mammals whose stomachs are generally acidic. In fact, only lepidoteran stomachs have receptors for the Bt toxin-binding receptors that react to the toxin. Also, the toxins ingested from the plants break up when cooked, thus negating any chances of harm to humans.
UPLB employs a conventional breeding process by using a donor line from Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. (Mahyco) in India. They aim to cross the donor line with eggplant varieties that are popular in the Philippines. Dr. Hautea described these eggplants as longer and spotless purple unlike the short, plump, and white-striped Mahyco line, which is not acceptable among Filipinos.
Rice for the eyes
Seeing gold in a grain of rice, Dr. Alfonso talked about GM rice that can produce beta-carotene, which is the pre-cursor of vitamin A, in the endosperm (edible part of the grain). People who can’t afford varied diets are prone to vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which can lead to various ailments, blindness, and even death.
PhilRice is one of the agencies involved in the Golden Rice (GR) project, which aims to supplement current efforts to curb incidences of VAD worldwide. GR is enriched with beta-carotene through biofortification process. Regular food like fortified rice, margarine, and instant noodles, among others, are the means employed by the government to help reduce VAD in the country. The Golden Rice Network, of which PhilRice is a key player, is relentless in narrowing this gap.
Vitamin A or retinol plays an essential part in the early embryonic development of all mammals. It is vital for the proper functioning of the immune system, the red cells in the retina of the eye, and mucous membranes throughout the body. Diet is the primary source of retinol.
Rockefeller Foundation statistics show that roughly 400 million people are prone to blindness and susceptibility to other fatal diseases, half of them children. Up to 2.5 million pre-school children annually may be saved by controlling VAD worldwide.
In the Philippines, the latest national survey of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (FNRI-DOST) shows that VAD is prevalent among 15% of children under 5 years old and 11.1% of children under 12. This is where Golden Rice comes in.
Dr. Alfonso and his team at PhilRice and their collaborators continue to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of GR at reducing VAD even as the GR Network has designed ways to make Golden Rice available to those who need it most.
The consumers, especially those suffering from VAD, are waiting.