Who's afraid of the GMO eggplant?

Written by Dr. Michael Purugganan
Originally Published Online GMA News Online
27 May 2013

The Court of Appeals recently struck a blow to GMO crops in the Philippines by its decision to stop field trials for Bt talong, a genetically modified (GMO) eggplant.  If successful, this biotech crop would have allowed Filipino farmers larger harvests while spraying less pesticides in their fields. 

We need to strike a note of caution, but not in the way the court ruling suggests. Instead, as we look at GMO crops, we must be careful we understand what they are, why they are an important technology to help us feed our people, and why the scientific community says they are safe. 

First, some science.

In conventional agriculture, plant breeders routinely use random mutations in crops to help select and develop new and improved varieties.  Plants naturally change and mutate their genetic material, altering, adding or removing genes, destroying or making new ones.  Traditional breeding starts by genetically crossing two different varieties.  If a rice breeder crosses two different rice varieties to develop a new one, for example, she is actually mixing together roughly 800,000 mutations, and in most cases we have no clue what these mutations do.

Instead of depending on random mutation or generations of cross-breeding, genetic engineering relies on inserting specific known genes into the DNA of a plant. GMO technology depends on our understanding how the gene we insert works, and changing the genome of the plant in a very limited way.   

Bt talong was developed by genetically engineering a gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis so that the GMO eggplants now produce a protein that defends it against insect attacks. This protein has been used by farmers as a spray since the 1960s, and is so safe for humans that US organic farmers spray it into their fields to fight insect pests.  In 1995, the US Environmental Protection Agency approved the release of Bt crops for planting on farms.  In the Philippines, research was being done by UPLB, the University of Southern Mindanao, and several government agencies to see if Bt talong is effective and can help our farmers improve their harvests. The recent Court of Appeals decision stops this scientific research, halting the university field experiments. 

At the heart of this court ruling is a public perception that GMOs are intrinsically bad.  Yet these crops have been around for more than two decades. In 2010, 66 million hectares of land in the US was planted with GMO crops, including corn, soybean, squash and papaya.  Eighty-five percent of corn and 90 percent of soybeans that are planted in the US are GMOs. Americans have been consuming GMO foods for nearly 20 years, and there have been no reported health issues.

Scientific studies always have to be done to make sure that specific GMO crops provide real benefits and are safe.  It is important that we do that.  And GMO crops, which usually involve inserting a handful of genes, are among the most heavily tested crops in the world.  In contrast, new plant varieties you buy from your local farm supply store or garden shop have not been extensively studied, and we have absolutely no idea what the hundreds of thousands of mutations found in conventionally bred crop varieties are really doing.

As a whole, there is nothing intrinsically harmful in GMO technology. A statement released last year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest professional association of scientists in the world, said that  "consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques." 

Dr. Michael Purugganan is a Filipino plant geneticist and is the Dean of Science, New York University. He is also co-director of the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus.