From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : BT Brinjal
Mains level : Hazards of GM Crops
- 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.
- Mahyco’s Bt brinjal has been under a moratorium since 2010.
- Even as the government clamped down on the illegal GM crop, some farmer groups have demanded the release of Mahyco’s Bt brinjal and other GM crops in the regulatory pipeline.
- It is true that the moratorium was imposed by the then MoEFCC, despite being cleared by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex regulatory body for GM crops.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- We cannot wish all these concerns away simply because some farmers want to try Bt brinjal, or farmers in Bangladesh have been cultivating Bt brinjal since 2013.
- Farmers do not and cannot assess long-term impacts on ecology and health, which needs more rigorous and sensitive studies than those conducted so far.