A new multi-million dollar Cornell University-led project aims to improve food security in Bangladesh and the Philippines by producing insect-resistant eggplant crops using pioneering biotechnology.
Thanks to a $10 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) the Feed the Future Insect-Resistant Eggplant Partnership initiative will develop genetically engineered (GE) eggplant varieties capable of resisting insect infestations, reducing the reliance of harmful pesticides.
“Crop pests and pathogens are a threat to food security and the environmental sustainability of food systems globally,” said Maricelis Acevedo, research professor of global development. “Sustainable agricultural practices are essential to food production, and scientists and local regulatory agencies must work in tandem to produce food crops that are better and safer for the environment and people.”
The project will support scientists in Bangladesh and Philippines develop local varieties of eggplant, one of the most popular vegetables, especially in Bangladesh.
In 2014 Bt eggplant became the first GE food crop to be approved for use in South Asia, with subsequent studies indicating yield increases of 51%, net revenue rises of 128%, and a 38% drop in pesticide costs.
There is still controversy associated with these technologies, despite the success, but the hope is that with scientists, farmers and policymakers working together this project can continue to make a positive impact.
“Farmers are demanding more resilient crops that are higher yielding and safer for them to farm and consume,” added Acevedo. “Bt eggplant delivers on all these fronts.”
The story will make some think of the seemingly never ending and deadly Golden Rice (GR) debacle that has prevented the roll out of genetically-modified GR rice that has been designed to save lives by tackling Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD). Which has caused millions of children in developing countries to lose their sight and die prematurely.
As author Anthony Warner points out in his book, Ending Hunger, “It is up to those whose bellies are full to fight for the hungry”. So when science offers the tools to help in this fight it is critical that every effort is made to make them available where they are needed most.
A seminal 2016 study ‘found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops’.
Surely then with science and guiding principles of empathy, it is time for the world to look again at utilising these solutions that already exist, by exploring the use of GE crops that have proved as safe as non GE crops, and backing scientists with the funds they need to break new ground on these technologies.