Bt Brinjal and the Great GMO Debate

India’s considering legalizing genetically modified brinjal – the vegetable otherwise known as eggplant or aubergine. (Or baingan or kathirikai.) It’s a popular vegetable in Indian cuisine.

In October 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) recommended approval for transgenic eggplants that would resist the shoot borer, a major pest. (It doesn’t protect against bacterial wilt, a different major pest.) The main US player, naturally, is Monsanto, through the Indian company Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds  Co (Mahyco).

[Edited to Add: On Feb 10, 2010, the government put Bt Brinjal on indefinite hold. There were some reports of planned 180-day rat studies instead of the usual 90-day ones.]

There’s been a storm of protest. Activists, farmers, and political leaders are upset. Some have actually called it poison.

Minister for the Environment Jairam Ramesh  has asked for further investigation and public input, while Minister for Food and Agriculture Sharad Pawar is pushing for its introduction.

Meanwhile, the Chief Ministers of the three largest eggplant-producing states have said they do not intend to grow Bt Brinjal. (West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar together account for over 60% of India’s eggplant production.)

Why the controversy?

So far, India’s main GMO crop is cotton, modified with Baccillus Thuringiensis genes that are meant to protect it from bollworm. Like many issues in India, this has been controversial ever since it was introduced 5 years ago – and maybe even before that. Some allegations:

  • It doesn’t work. Bt Cotton, according to some sources, is more vulnerable to drought and to other pests, so yields quickly fall.
  • It’s tough to control and study. Indian agriculture, made up of large numbers of independent farmers, is not suitable for controlled usage.  Bt genes can spread through cross-pollination, and no controlled studies are possible as to whether Bt Cotton performs better or worse than normal cotton.
  • Farmers must repurchase the seeds each year, since the plants are not designed to breed true. This is a considerable expenditure; when the cotton does not perform, farmers go deeper into debt, sometimes hopelessly. Anti Bt activists have suggested that the spate of farmer suicides have been linked to the introduction of agribusiness inputs like these.
  • Some sources have said that sheep and cattle grazing on the post-harvest stubble – as they traditionally do – were poisoned when they grazed on Bt Cotton fields.
  • There have been allegations of allergic reactions among cotton-pickers.

Though cotton is the single largest transgenic crop in India, investigations have been underway on several others. In 2006, India’s Supreme Court stopped trials on Bt Brinjal so it could examine the issues raised in a public interest petition, but eventually they were re-started.

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Meanwhile, pro-GMO sources have suggested that with genetic modification, yields have risen, pesticide use fallen, and it’s all been worthwhile.

India’s Prime Minister, in his speech at the 97th Indian Science Congress said:

Developments in biotechnology present us the prospect of greatly improving yields in our major crops by increasing resistance to pests and also to moisture stress. BT Cotton has been well accepted in the country and has made a great difference to the production of cotton. The technology of genetic modification is also being extended to food crops though this raises legitimate questions of safety

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4 Responses to Bt Brinjal and the Great GMO Debate

  1. It is appropriate to look for genetic modification of a specie when the demand for the specie outstrips supply or is likely to outstrip in the foreseeable future or there is a real threat to the continued existence of the specie because of uncontrollable pest etc. GM is not a technology of choice because of its inherent risks including threat to bio-diversity and possibility of unforeseen collateral damage.

    Given the grave nature of risk, caution should be the guiding factor. There are more than 60 types of brinjal grown in different parts of India. Availabilty of all these kinds of brinjal is excessive in relation to demand. Though brinjal is consumed in all parts of India, it is a vegetable of choice only in a few households. We have not identified any threat to biological continuity of brinjal so far.

    Unlike onions and potatoes which become periodically scarce in India (their relative imperishability abets hoarding ), brinjal scarcity is never an issue.( I am not suggesting GM in onions and potatoes.)

    Though BT cotton also continues to be controversial, GM in edibles is fraught with much graver risks. ‘Festina lente’ ought to be our strategy.

  2. Monsanto has acknowledged that BT cotton is no more resistant to bollworm in certain parts of Gujarat. That means that the raison-d’etre of BT cotton has now been rattled.

  3. Pingback: GMO Crops and Pigweed « Rupa Bose's Blog

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