Should Bt Brinjal be allowed for cultivation?

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | February 9, 2010



Unlike Bt Cotton, the prospect of commercial production of Bt Brinjal has sparked a huge uproar in the country, dividing scientists, policy
makers, farmers and even lay persons like you and me. Tomorrow Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh will announce his decision on whether to allow this or not. But what is all this brouhaha about and why? Here we take a look at the subject that is agitating the nation:

What is Bt Brinjal?

Bt Brinjal is a genetically modified brinjal created by inserting a gene from soil bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis into brinjal. This gene provides the plant resistance to common pests like Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer and Fruit Borer that cause maximum damage to the brinjal crop.

Bt Brinjal would, thus, help farmers cut down on use of pesticides and reduce cost of production, claims Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) which has developed it in collaboration with US-based Monsanto Holdings Private Limited. Mahyco developed and marketed the first genetically modified crop Bt Cotton in India in 2002.

Why is it being opposed?
Bt Brinjal was cleared for commercial release by the regulatory body, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in October last year, sparking a hue and cry. The first and foremost reason for opposition is the fear of unleashing an unknown entity--the embedded gene of a bacterium in Bt Brinjal--into the food chain. Unlike Bt Cotton, Bt Brinjal is a food item. What would be the impact of the embedded gene on humans? What would be its impact on other natural brinjal plants by way of cross pollination? What would be the impact on other food crops?

There are doubts about scientific tests on Bt Brinjal because the studies were carried out not by any independent agency but by Mahyco, the company that has developed it and stands to gain commercially. The doubts have been reinforced by other reasons too--presence of some scientists in GEAC who have had direct connections with Mahyco or Monsanto, dissenting note of some scientists which were ignored by GEAC and dispute over both the number of tests and the duration of tests like toxic effect on test animals that should have been held.

There are also fundamental questions like tampering with nature and commercial establishments dictating country’s food policy. Also, why a genetically modified brinjal when there is no shortage of it or the farmers have not asked for it. India is said to be home to nearly
2,500 natural variety of brinjals.

What does the developer of Bt Brinjal say?
The company says Bt Brinjal would cut down use of pesticides significantly as the two pests-- Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer and Fruit Borer--damage nearly 70 to 80% of crop. Secondly, it claims all the required tests were conducted at the leading Indian institutes like Govind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar, Central Institute of Fisheries Education in Mumbai, Central Avian Research Institute of Bareilly etc and that these proved that Bt Brinjal is absolutely safe. The company accepts that ‘one member’ of GEAC was involved in development of Bt Brinjal but says a whole lot of scientists are involved in developing GM crop and that should not in any way discredit the GEAC clearance.

Which are other GM food and which countries cultivate them?
Soybeans, maize and rape seed are the three main genetically modified food crop which are cultivated in countries like the US, Argentina, Brazil and Canada.  Spain, Australia and some other countries grow them on a very small scale. Bt Cotton is the other genetically modified (non-food) product being used in a big way in China and India. If the government clears it, Bt Brinjal would be the first one to be introduced anywhere in the world.

What is the status of Bt Brinjal now?
After GEAC’s clearance, the final say rests with political bosses, particularly Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh (GEAC comes under this ministry) who has carried out wide consultations throughout the country. But several states, like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Uttarakhand, have banned it on health concerns.

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