[Burning Issue] Bt Brinjal

Bt Brinjal

In News

  • A month ago, Bt brinjal to resist the brinjal fruit and shoot borer (an insect), was found growing illegally in Haryana.
  • This was a different Bt brinjal from the one developed by the Indian company, Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a 26% stake.

What are Genetically Modified (GM) crops?

  • GM is a technology that involves inserting DNA into the genome of an organism.
  • To produce a GM plant, new DNA is transferred into plant cells. Usually, the cells are then grown in tissue culture where they develop into plants. The seeds produced by these plants will inherit the new DNA.
  • One of the methods used to transfer DNA is to coat the surface of small metal particles with the relevant DNA fragment, and bombard the particles into the plant cells.
  • Another method is to use a bacterium or virus. The viruses and bacteria transfer their DNA into a host cell as a normal part of their life cycle. For GM plants, the bacterium most frequently used is called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The gene of interest is transferred into the bacterium and the bacterial cells then transfer the new DNA to the genome of the plant cells.

Pros of GM crops

  • Higher crop yields.
  • Reduced farm costs.
  • Increased farm profit.
  • Improvement in health and the environment.

Cons of GM Corps

  • It is clear that the technology of genetic engineering is an evolving one and there is much, especially on its impact on human health and environment that is yet to be understood properly. The scientific community itself seems uncertain about this.
  • While there are many in this community who feel that the benefits outweigh the risks, others point to the irreversibility of this technology and uncontrollability of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) once introduced in the ecosystem. Hence, they advocate a precautionary approach towards any open release of GMOs.
  • One of the concerns raised strongly by those opposing GM crops in India is that many important crops like rice, brinjal, and mustard, among others, originated here, and introducing genetically modified versions of these crops could be a major threat to the vast number of domestic and wild varieties of these crops.
  • In fact, globally, there is a clear view that GM crops must not be introduced in centres of origin and diversity. India also has mega biodiversity hotspots like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats which are rich in biodiversity yet ecologically very sensitive.
  • There is also a potential for pests to evolve resistance to the toxins produced by GM crops and the risk of these toxins affecting nontarget organisms.
  • There is also the danger of unintentionally introducing allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in foods.

Labeling GM crops

  • Most GM foods in the study did not disclose GM on their labels and 15% made false claims saying they were GM-free.
  • Retailing being largely an unorganized sector, enforcing truthful labeling is not pragmatic.
  • Two of the eight infant food samples, imported from the US and the Netherlands, were GM positive, but the labels did not disclose this.
  • Under Section 22 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, GM foods are not allowed to be manufactured, imported or sold in India unless approved under the Act.

What is Bt Brinjal?

  • Bt Brinjal is a GM crop created by inserting Cry1Ac gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into Brinjal.
  • The insertion of the gene gives Brinjal plant resistance against lepidopteron insects like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit Borer (Helicoverpa armigera).
  • Upon ingestion of the Bt toxin by the insect, there would be disruption of digestive processes, ultimately resulting in the death of the insect.
  • This was to bring down the economic cost of brinjal production in the country. As per studies, the Shoot Borer and Fruit Borer cause up to 20% damage in the crops. The introduction of Bt Brinjal would add to annual production and it would be good for farm economy in the country.

Why Bt Brinjal was banned?

  • Despite of the claims of the Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co) company that it has done all Biosafety tests, there were concerns over potential health hazards and problem of terminator seed in Brinjal, which would compel farmers to by seeds from Monsanto.
  • The matter reached to Supreme Court and an expert committee, appointed by Supreme Court recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all genetically modified (GM) food crops and a complete ban on field trials of transgenics in crops which originate in India.
  • The result was that the government imposed a moratorium on field trials of Bt Brinjal in 2010.

Issues with BT Brinjal

I] Institutional dilemma

  • The Ministry of Agriculture has not offered evidence that Bt brinjal will benefit farmers.
  • If Bt brinjal performs as Mahyco proposes, brinjal output will increase and retail prices will fall, benefiting consumers far more than farmers.
  • Companies might charge premium prices for Bt brinjal seeds, in which case farmers may not benefit at all.

II] Biosafety issues

  • On biosafety issues, scientific opinion is divided down the middle. Brinjal happens to be such a crop.
  • While some scientists were in favour of releasing Bt brinjal, others highlighted crucial deficiencies in the characterization of Bt brinjal, and in the environmental impacts assessment.
  • Few ecologists warned of contamination of India’s diverse brinjal varieties.
  • Biodiversity is critical for nutrition and sustainability, and the government’s own task force on biotechnology (2004) had recommended that no GM crop be allowed in biodiversity-rich areas.
  • Further, a majority of the technical expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court recommended a ban on genetically modifying those crops for which India is a centre of origin or diversity.
  • The Dr. Y.S.R. Horticultural University highlighted crucial deficiencies in the characterisation of Bt brinjal, and in the environmental impact assessment.
  • The ecologist, Madhav Gadgil, warned of contamination of India’s diverse brinjal varieties.

III] Nutrition issues

  • In terms of nutrition, there seem to be some significant differences between Bt and ordinary brinjal.
  • Many health researchers have argued that Bt brinjal poses risks to human health.
  • S. Swaminathan and V.M. Katoch, then the Director General of the ICMR, asked for long-term (chronic) toxicity studies, before taking any decision on Bt brinjal.
  • Further, they asked that these be conducted independently, instead of relying exclusively on Mahyco for data.

IV] No scientific consensus

  • In recent years, pests have developed resistance to Bt cotton, forcing farmers to spray lethal pesticides.
  • This led to over 50 deaths by pesticide-poisoning in Vidarbha in 2017.
  • A GM-based strategy of pest control is unsustainable, all the more so since farmers, already pressed for land, ignore the government’s recommendation to plant refuge crops.
  • The problem of sustainable, remunerative farming has become more acute, and alternative strategies such as organic and zero budget natural farming, which do not allow GM seeds, are gaining ground.

In the debate

  • Bt brinjal found no support from State governments. Kerala and Uttarakhand asked for a ban on GM crops.
  • States with substantial brinjal cultivation, i.e. West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar opposed the release pending rigorous, extensive testing.
  • In 2012 and 2017, respectively, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Science & Technology, Environment and Forests assessed the GM controversy.
  • Both committees expressed grave concerns about lapses in the regulatory system.
  • In fact, the Committee on Agriculture was so alarmed by the irregularities in the assessment of Bt brinjal, that it recommended “a thorough probe by a team of eminent independent scientists and environmentalists”, which never happened.
  • Further, both committees endorsed labelling GM foods to protect a consumer’s right to know.
  • However, since retailing is largely unorganised, enforcing truthful labelling is a logistical nightmare, and the Ministry of Agriculture believes it is impractical.
  • The FSSAI has only recently begun putting labelling rules into place.

No scientific consensus yet

  • In sum, there is a moratorium on Bt brinjal because there is no scientific consensus on its safety and efficacy, and because the States and Parliament have profound misgivings about the regulatory system.
  • In recent years, pests have developed resistance to Bt cotton, forcing farmers to spray lethal pesticides.
  • This led to over 50 deaths by pesticide-poisoning in Yavatmal in 2017.
  • If anything, the problem of sustainable, remunerative farming has become more acute, and alternative strategies such as organic and zero budget natural farming, which do not allow GM seeds, are gaining ground.

Way Forward

  • Environmental Impact Assessment: must be carried out by independent environmentalist, as farmers do not and cannot assess the long-term impact of GM crops on ecology and health.
  • Unchecked import of GM products should be stopped.
  • In order to curb the illegal cultivation of Bt brinjal, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) must:
  • Collaborate with state governments and launch a nation-wide investigation drive.
  • Take action on threats of deliberate Bt brinjal and Bt cotton cultivation.
  • Investigate and prosecute those involved in the illegal supply of Bt brinjal seeds.
  • Organic farming should be encouraged.
  • The government should go for commercialization of Bt brinjal only after the core and deep research on the long term prospects and benefits of commercialization of Bt crops in India. In that context, India can learn from Bangladesh’s example where farmers have been growing the Bt Brinjal since 2013.

The government

  • Must detail the steps it has taken since 2010 to address the scientific lacunae.
  • Clarify precisely how Bt brinjal will benefit farmers
  • Put the infrastructure to ensure labelling into place
  • Demonstrate how Bt brinjal fits in with sustainable farming and biodiversity conservation.

Conclusion

As things stand, Bt brinjal runs counter to the framework for agricultural development and farmers’ well-being devised by parliamentary panels and the government’s own task forces and expert committees.

 

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