In India the elongated, deep purple ovoid is considered one of the humblest of vegetables. The Bengalis call it ‘Begun’ which means a vegetable that has no virtue. But now the lowly brinjal has become the eye of the storm that is forcing you to sit up and take notice as you sit down to eat.
For if the Union Government accepts an expert committee report that last week cleared a genetically modified (GM) brinjal for commercial cultivation, it may open the floodgates for a host of such technologically engineered vegetables and fruits that will hit market shelves and eventually your dining table.
At the core of the acrimonious debate is just how safe these foods are for you and for the environment. The final nod may well remain elusive as the Government is in a bind with consumer and environmental activists joined by politicians of different hues taking sides fired by emotion and, in some cases, informed opinion on issues of safety.
“There are strong arguments for and against the introduction of GM brinjal and it will take a lot of time to study them and the final decision would not be taken under the influence of any company or any NGO,” says Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh. He plans to hold a series of consultations with scientists, agricultural experts, farmer’s organisations, consumer groups and NGOs before finalising his views.
The brinjal brouhaha
– A genetically modified (GM) brinjal that promises high yield and is the first of its kind in the world is likely to be cleared for commercial crop cultivation in India.
– NGOs vehemently oppose such transgenic foods, saying they are unsafe for human consumption and would adversely impact the environment.
– The Union Government has called for a national debate and opened the research to scrutiny.
It is not as if genetically engineered crops are new to India. In 2002, after an equally divisive debate, the government permitted the commercial cultivation of genetically engineered cotton called Bt cotton. Despite the widespread criticism that greeted the first cultivation of Bt cotton, it has been an unqualified success.
Transgenic cotton is grown in 90 per cent of the cotton growing areas in the country, increasing yields by as much as 50 per cent in certain regions.
Globally, since its introduction 12 years ago, Bt cotton now occupies over 40 per cent of the total cotton sown area and has been adopted by countries such as the US, China, South Africa and Australia. Disputes, however, continue about its efficacy, safety and environmental damage.
The criticism, about the safety and utility of genetically modified food products, is focused on the assumption that altering the genetic make-up of a food item is bound to have consequences, which could prove to be deadly. No adverse effects on health have been reported for any transgenic product introduced anywhere in the world so far.
Besides, it is a myth that traditional food has no toxic effects. But there are worries like allergic reactions as well as fears posed by gene transfer and out-crossing that may lead to unforeseen consequences like resistance to antibiotics.
This springs from the worry that GM foods would cause genetic modification in those who eat them. While that is the consumers worry, farmers concern is that when GM crops get mixed with traditional crops, these may get destroyed.
The reason why the clearance of a GM brinjal has raised a fresh squall is that apart from it being the first time India would be clearing a GM food crop for commercial cultivation, it is the first time in the world that a genetically engineered brinjal is being introduced. GM crops are those in which the genetic material (DNA) is altered for some perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer.
In the case of the brinjal, the problem farmers faced is a particularly pesky and resilient insect called the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) that eats into tender shoots and fruits retarding growth, making the brinjals unsuitable for the market and unfit for human consumption. Heavy doses of pesticide just didn’t seem to help.
That’s when Maharashtra Hybrids Seed Company (Mahyco) combined forces with the US seed giant Monsanto to come up with a GM brinjal variety that would become resistant to the borer. Both these companies had in the past jointly developed the genetically modified Bt Cotton to successfully tackle the bollworm problem that had devastated cotton crops in the past.
– The Government says all studies put on website and clearance took nine years
– Extensive trials done by public sector laboratories, like ICAR, cleared Bt Brinjal
– Expert committee cleared all trials and was satisfied with governmental controls
– NGOs charge lack of transparency and undue haste in GEAC clearance for Bt brinjal
– GEAC poorly equipped to address bio-safety concerns and favours industry lobby
– No independent evaluation mechanism and Government depends on the multinational
They did this by introducing into the cotton seed a gene of the common soil microbe called Bacillus thuringiensis that encoded an insecticidal protein lethal to the bollworm hence the name Bt Cotton. When the companies found that the Bt gene was as effective in tackling the brinjal borer they decided to develop the transgenic Bt brinjal.
Estimates are that Bt brinjal could add to the current annual production of 80 lakh tonnes by more than 50 per cent-that is as much destroyed by pests-with Bt brinjal. This offers a win-win situation both for farmers and consumers. Brinjal is grown in around 5.5 lakh hectares and is a critical cash crop for more than 1.4 million small and marginal farmers. The area under cultivation has gone up by 15 per cent in the last 10 years but production has barely increased because of repeated borer attacks.
Sadly, despite a range of brinjal varieties, India, which is also the second largest producer in the world after China, has not been able to check the virulence of the FSB that is responsible for the pockmarks on the vegetable’s peel. “It will help millions of brinjal farmers who have been suffering from the havoc caused by FSB and it will help farmers tackle this pest in an environment friendly manner and increase yields and farm income,” says Raju Barwale, managing director, Mahyco.
About safety concerns, Mahyco points out that the company fulfilled the series of trials both for its efficacy and safety including the toxicity tests on animals that the Genetically Engineering Approval Committee, (GEAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had ordered. Two expert committees formed by the GEAC had extensively reviewed the bio-safety data and had cleared Bt brinjal after large-scale field trials were done in public sector research laboratories.
While the Indian Council of Agricultural Research did multi-location agronomic trials in 2004 and 2005, the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research did large-scale trials in 2007 and 2008. “Rigorous scientific tests, including toxicity and allergenicity evaluation as well as nutritional studies have confirmed that Bt brinjal is as safe as its non-Bt counterpart,” claims Mahendra Kumar Sharma, Mahyco’s general manager.
Such assertions do not wash well with civil society groups and NGOswho have vehemently oppose the introduction of GM foods. They charge the GEAC with relying much too heavily on the trials and findings of Mahyco, without adequate independent testing and verification. “It is unacceptable and a shame that the regulator in the country has put the interests of corporations over the interests of ordinary citizens,” says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Kheti Virasat Mission.
Greenpeace, the global environmental activist group, says that it is shocking that the GEAC has mindlessly gone ahead and approved Bt brinjal even when informed scientists and citizens of the country raised serious concerns on the nature of the safety studies. “The GEAC is hand-inglove with the industry lobby and is not on the side of the public. It has failed the country,” says Rajesh Krishnan, campaigner (sustainable agriculture) at Greenpeace.
The concerns and controversy spring from the initial failure of the GEAC over addressing issues of transparency, making public the nature and details of the trials carried out, the bio-safety of the products-there are four varieties of brinjals on the table for approval-and the conflicting interests of the experts in the committee reviewing the studies.
Denying that they have held back information, Ranjini Warrier, member secretary, GEAC, says: “We have put out everything that the public and experts want to know about the entire process of granting approval for Bt brinjal on our website. We have nothing to hide.” Sajiv Anand, director, All India Crop Biotechnology Association, concurs and says, “The GEAC has looked at every possible bio-safety issue before clearing the crop. It is unlikely that Bt brinjal will not get approval from the Government.”
Other opponents raise larger issues. “There is also the threat to future seeds and Indian agriculture coming under the control of multinational companies and charging of exorbitant prices for the seeds from Indian farmers,” says the All India Kisan Sabha.
“The monopoly of MNCs like Monsanto over the seeds is another major concern, as seeds are no longer in the public domain as these are now the intellectual property of these multinationals.” The irony is that this argument may not hold good in the case of Bt brinjal as several Indian research institutions are closely associated with the research and testing.
There is valid scepticism about the integrity of the approval process. This is why renowned molecular biologist Pushpa M. Bhargava, the member appointed to the committee by the Supreme Court, in the light of public interest litigation on the functioning of the GEAC, to oversee matters of the GEAC, emphasises that its proceedings fall far short of the rigour required before passing something as contentious and complex as a genetically modified food crop.
“It is a disaster. It is unethical. No time was given to us as members to review the findings. Why was it rushed? I had suggested to them to invite all stakeholders and have a scientific discussion on the matter. But they avoided it,” says an enraged Bhargava.
The GM crops that are being tested in India for release
CAULIFLOWER: Sungro Seeds and Nunhems India.
RICE: Bayer Bioscience, Avesthagen, Mahyco and Metahelix Life Science.
TOMATO: Avesthagen, IARI and Mahyco.
POTATO: Central Potato Research Institute
CORN: Monsanto, Pioneer Overseas and Dow Agrosciences
SORGHUM: National Research Centre for Sorghum
BRINJAL: Mahyco, Bejo Sheetal Seeds, Sungro Seeds, University of Agricultural Sciences and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural Univ.
MUSTARD: Delhi University
What the moderates among the critics argue is that not enough is known at this point in time about the all round impact of GM crops to clear their release into the environment. Much more rigorous testing is needed before this can be done. They also point out that studies on Bt crops show that there are potential health hazards in bio-engineered foods.
Animals ingesting GM food have shown problems in growth, organ development and immune responsiveness. Studies in other countries have found allergies, disturbance in immune system responses, damage to organs like kidneys and liver, alterations in blood chemistry, slower growth and development.
In real life instances in India, there is the phenomenon of animals falling sick after grazing in Bt cotton fields and, in some cases, dying, and workers reporting allergies. But these cases have not been investigated fully by the health authorities.
Some NGOs have raised concerns about the absence of labelling laws in India. Groups like the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) have warned that without a regulatory regime in place, it would be impossible to monitor the impact of such new food products.
“In India, there is no labelling regime for genetically modified foods which will give consumers a choice to make a decision whether they want to consume genetically modified food or not. Till the time this is done, regulators should not clear edible GM crops,” says CSE Director Sunita Narain.
Whatever needs to be done, whether it is clearing doubts NGOs and activists have about the independence of the GEAC or addressing health and safety concerns, the Government now needs to do it swiftly.
The country cannot afford to ignore biotechnology options to increase agricultural productivity as it does hold the promise of a second green revolution.
But, for the moment, it has to evolve stringent and transparent testing before GM foods are released into the market to ensure these are safe for human consumption. For want of a proper regulation in place, an opportunity to meet food security needs must not be lost.
Amarnath K. Menon