Biotech Makes Eggplants Resistant to Devastating Insects

Published October 9, 2008

Researchers in India have begun field testing on eggplants genetically improved to resist devastating attacks by the fruit and shoot borer.

The pest currently destroys 40 percent of the eggplant harvest in South and Southeast Asia, where food shortages cause rampant malnutrition and resultant diseases and death.

Avoids Use of Pesticides

Efforts to fight the fruit and shoot borer currently entail massive applications of pesticides in eggplant fields. Such large amounts of pesticides are necessary that many eggplant farmers themselves are afraid to eat their own produce.

“We have to spray pesticides on eggplants every two to three days,” an Indian eggplant farmer reported in the Journal of Risk Research. “Because of this practice, we do not eat the eggplants that we grow. … But we put them directly in the market and sell them anyway. If [biotech] eggplant is invented, we will be able to eat the eggplants we grow because there will be less chemical residue on the vegetable.”

“The fruit and shoot borer is a major threat to eggplant production, causing significant yield loss and reducing the number of marketable fruits,” explained Henry I. Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. “Farmers often resort to intensive use of pesticides to control the insect, with varying results on the pest, but not infrequently causing toxicity to farmers and their families.

“The new [genetically modified] varieties, which boast enhanced endogenous resistance to the fruit and shoot borer, have been exhaustively tested and evaluated for their agronomic performance, safety, and efficacy in controlling the pest, as well as for any effects on beneficial insects,” Miller noted.

Improved Health, Yields

The new, borer-resistant eggplant has been created by the Indian agricultural company Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Co (Mahyco) and Monsanto. The fruit and shoot borer is similar to the corn borer that plagued corn and maize crops throughout the world over the years until defeated by pesticides and genetic improvement of corn.

Experts believe the genetically improved eggplant will reduce pesticide applications by 30 percent, making eggplants much safer for human consumption.

The reduced need for pesticide applications is also expected to have a strongly positive impact on the environment. In addition, initial research indicates the genetically improved eggplants may have higher yields than conventional strains.

Activist Obstacles Remain

Opposition from anti-technology groups trying to stop biotechnology, however, may delay Indian government approval of the improved eggplant, cautions Gregory Conko, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“Although it is good news that the Indian regulators have finally permitted field trials of these plants, it’s likely to be several more years before they are approved for commercial cultivation,” Conko said.

“There is a very strong anti-biotechnology presence in India from both Greenpeace and several homegrown activist organizations,” Conko continued. “And, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which is the biotechnology regulatory body, is very heavily influenced by the green movement.

“So, like Bt cotton, we should expect this process to take quite a long time, with the GEAC demanding three or four years’ worth of field trial results before finally doing what it should have done years ago,” Conko said.
Conko added, “a lot of Indian farmers are very excited about the possibility of growing Bt brinjal [eggplant] because they’ve been watching for the past four years how well cotton growers have done with crops that incorporate the same trait.

“And,” Conko continued, “because the fruit and shoot borer has developed increasing resistance to many of the frontline insecticides used in Indian agriculture, if Bt brinjal is even half as effective as Bt cotton has been, it could end up raising yields and saving farmers a lot of money they would otherwise spend on relatively ineffective insecticide sprays.”

Miller agreed, saying biotech opponents are the real danger to farmers and consumers alike. “The greatest ‘biohazard’ in the testing and commercialization of these new varieties is the opposition to them from dishonest, dissembling, antisocial, anti-technology activists,” he said.

John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D. ([email protected]) is a civilian emergency medicine faculty member at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and the American Council on Science and Health.