Bt brinjal a wake-up call
Bt brinjal being illegally cultivated in the country—the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources has just confirmed this for a Haryana farmer’s crop—should hardly shock anyone.
Why in news?
- In what could be a blatant violation of environment protection laws in the country, a farmer in Haryana’s Fatehabad district was allegedly found to be growing a transgenic brinjal variety, which is not yet approved for cultivation in the country.
- The crop tested positive to a bacterial protein typically inserted using genetic engineering for protection against pests, in a preliminary dip test.
- In 2002, the government had to allow Bt cotton cultivation since farmers started growing this, in spite of the lack of approval.
- Developed by the Maharashtra-based seed company, Mahyco, Bt brinjal was the first food crop made to contain an insecticidal protein, called cry1 ac, sourced from the genes of the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringienesis.
- Though this was cleared for commercial cultivation it was put in deep-freeze, by former Union Environment Minister in 2010 on the grounds that there was scientific and public disagreement on its safety.
- In the Bt brinjal case, paranoia trumped scientific rationale, and it was the farmer that suffered.
- While the crop cleared the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee’s (GEAC’s) biosafety-test in 2009, the government yielded to pressure from the anti-GM lobby and declared a moratorium in 2010 on the transgenic crop developed by Mahyco.
- The decision not only hurt Indian farmers—the Fruit and Shoot Borer, the pest that is controlled by the introduction of the Cry1Ac gene in the plant, affects 30-50% of the brinjal crop—it let Bangladesh capture the benefits.
- In 2013, Bangladesh approved genetic varieties that carry the Cry1Ac gene, and now nearly 20,000 farmers in the country grow the crop.
- Indeed, many media reports suggest the crop being illegally cultivated in Haryana could have links to the Bangladeshi variety.
- Studies by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) show that the genetically-modified brinjal performed far better than the traditional varieties—zero borer infestation was reported in 2017 and farmers cut pesticide use by upto 60%.
- A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that farmers saw incomes from the crop rise by 55% since the introduction of Bt brinjal.
- The farmer, whose name the activists did not reveal, is believed to have received saplings of the suspected Bt brinjal crop from a middleman.
- Bt brinjals are sold in the local mandis like any other brinjal. At Rs 8 a piece, in fact, the GM seeds were exorbitantly more expensive than normal ones (that sell for Re 0.5-1). A farmer would need 3,000 such seedlings to sow an acre.
- This is a flagrant violation of the environmental protection laws in the country. The standing crop in the plot should not only be destroyed, but a probe should also be carried out to know whether more farmers were involved in this illegal activity.
- The seed firm that has developed the genetically modified (GM) event and also those in the supply chain of these illegal seeds should be punished.
- This is clearly a failure of the government agencies concerned that illegal Bt brinjal is being cultivated in the country.
- This is not the first time this is happening. The story of Bt brinjal is currently similar to that of Bt cotton, which also entered India illegally and made it to the fields.
- Bt cotton was approved in India after large-scale illegal cultivation was discovered in Gujarat. The regulators turned a blind eye to illegal herbicide tolerant cotton cultivation thereafter, while it spread to lakhs of hectares.
- In late 2017, when illegal GM soy cultivation was discovered in Gujarat and a complaint lodged with GEAC, the response was quite slow and dangerously lackadaisical.
- India has done little to remedy unfounded scepticism of GM technology—even as Bangladesh moved on Bt brinjal, India waited for Mahyco to approach GEAC for a review of the crop’s biosafety data instead of doing this proactively.
- GEAC asked the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research to obtain relevant data from BARI in October last year, but, with this still pending, the cultivation/contamination in Haryana was reported.
- In fact, the anti-GM lobby in India is so strong that, in 2017, the government shelved plans for the commercial release of the indigenously developed GM mustard.
- Ironically, while anti-GM argues that private companies push GM tech without the biosafety of such crops being fully studied, GM-mustard was developed by the public sector, by Delhi University researchers including former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental.
- A GEAC sub-committee, found the crop has ‘nil’ or ‘negligible’ impact for all the criteria it was examined, including toxicity, ‘allergenicity’ and potential as a weed. Not only was it deemed safe for human and animal consumption, it was found environmentally safe (including for bees and soil microflora).
- Such rigorous and exhaustive scientific testing chronically losing to fear-mongering in India has spawned potentially dangerous subversion—with no certified GM crops that can be monitored available, farmers could turn to unapproved knock-offs that don’t conform to accepted biosafety standards.
- The Haryana contamination should be food for thought—activist pressure thwarting scientific evidence neither helps agri-growth/food security, nor does it ensure safety.
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