Uncommon furore over common brinjal

February 9th, 2010 - 9:16 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Feb 9 (IANS) India’s decision Tuesday to place an indefinite moratorium on commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal followed months of heated debate over the advantages and risks of growing the world’s first genetically modified vegetable.
Bt Brinjal is a transgenic variety of the vegetable, created by inserting a gene (Cry 1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringenisis (Bt) to brinjal. The insertion gives the plant resistance against pests like the brinjal fruit and shoot borer. On eating the bacterium Bt, the insect’s digestive processes are disrupted, ultimately resulting in death.

Supporters of the technology say it will reduce pesticide use and thus bring down input costs for farmers, while improving yields.

Opponents are principally worried on two counts — one, what happens if there is accidental cross-pollination between Bt and ordinary brinjal? Will the modified gene get into the other variety? What will the consequences be?

Two, what are the long-term effects of Bt Brinjal on human health, given that long-term trials have not been held? The product is too new for that.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who had to take the decision on the commercial release after the government Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had passed it last October, held a series of consultations with scientists, farmers and civil groups before reaching Tuesday’s decision.

He said the inadequacy of tests on long term health and environment impacts could not be ignored, and placed a moratorium pending further tests whose results would be available to all.

Ramesh said that in the past month, since he started public and private consultations on the issue, he had met around 8,000 people.

At the public meetings in Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad and Bangalore there was vociferous opposition. However small groups of farmers have said they are in favour of Bt Brinjal if it assures less dependence on pesticides.

The issue has also raised tempers in political circles. The agriculture and science and technology ministries had supported the commercial release of Bt Brinjal. Ramesh, on the other hand, wrote a sharp letter to Sharad Pawar after the agriculture minister said the government had no role left to play after the GEAC nod.

India is the world’s largest brinjal producer. West Bengal produces more than any other state, and the Left Front government there was one of 12 that had declared it would not allow commercial release of Bt Brinjal.

There are as many as 2,500 natural varieties of brinjals cultivated in India. The National Gene Bank here has accessions for nearly 3,550. Many of these also have medicinal value. The opponents are also worried because Bt Brinjal will carry no label since there are no labelling laws in the country for vegetables.

Another question raised time and again is why the GEAC had kept its test reports under wraps. The chairman had said that seed developers Mahyco wanted the information kept confidential in the “research and development stages”. This claim was severely critisised by global environmental group Greenpeace.

The moratorium declared by Ramesh is on the version of Bt Brinjal being developed by Mahyco. Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, the University of Agriculture in Dharwad (Karnataka) and two laboratories of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research are also developing genetically modified versions of brinjal.

So far, the only genetically modified crop cultivated commercially in India is Bt Cotton. It has had mixed reviews, but there is such a large area under its cultivation that India is now the sixth largest country growing genetically modified crops.

There are only 14 countries that cultivate GM food crops, according to the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, near Hyderabad.

After Bt Brinjal, there are many more genetically modified food crops awaiting GEAC approval — 25 kinds of rice, 23 kinds of tomatoes, many types of groundnut, pigeon peas, potato, mustard, sugarcane, soy and okra.

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