Bt Brinjal, a genetically modified version of the common vegetable, and its proposed introduction in India has become a topic of debate not only among scientists but politicians as well. A look at what the issues at stake are:
Bt Brinjal is a trans-genic brinjal created by inserting a gene (Cry 1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into brinjal.
The insertion of the gene into the vegetable is said to give the brinjal plant resistance against 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 its digestive processes, ultimately resulting in its death.
The government’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which cleared Bt Brinjal for commercial release in October, said it will reduce the farmers’ dependence on pesticides and enable higher yields.
That point of view has been supported by Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Director General Samir Brahmachari and Department of Biotechnology Secretary M.K. Bhan, among others. They have all said Bt Brinjal is safe for human consumption.
Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has said the government has no role to play once GEAC has given its approval.
But the rules say final approval has to be given by the Environment Ministry, as its Minister Jairam Ramesh pointed out in a letter to Pawar last week.
Ramesh is now holding public meetings on the issue in various cities of India. At meetings in Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Nagpur and Ahmedabad, there was vociferous opposition to the introduction of Bt Brinjal in India.
The governments of eight states that between them produce most of the brinjal in the country — West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh — have stated they will not allow introduction of Bt Brinjal.
Opponents to the introduction of the genetically modified food crop are principally worried on two counts — one, what happens if there is accidental cross-pollination between Bt and ordinary brinjal? Will the modified gene get into the normal brinjal? What will the consequences be?
Two, what are the long-term effects of Bt Brinjal on human health, given that long-term trials have not been held? The product is too new for that.
The GEAC approval was not unanimous. Supreme Court appointee to the committee Pushpa Bhargava had alleged that all necessary tests had not been carried out before the committee gave its approval.
GEAC had kept its test reports under wraps, saying developers of the seed — US firm Monsanto and Indian firm Mahyco — wanted the information kept confidential in the “research and development stages”.
This week, Bhargava — founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biolgy and a 1986 Padma Bhushan awardee — claimed at a seminar in Jawaharlal Nehru University that Ramesh was under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to clear Bt Brinjal. Ramesh promptly denied any such pressure.
The one genetically modified crop cultivated in India now is Bt Cotton. It has had mixed reviews, but there is such a large area under its cultivation that India is now the sixth largest country growing genetically modified crops.
The European Union has banned all genetically modified crops, while many other countries ban genetically modified food crops.
After Bt Brinjal, there are many more genetically modified food crops awaiting GEAC approval — 25 kinds of rice, 23 kinds of tomatoes, many types of groundnut, pigeon peas, potato, mustard, sugarcane, soy and okra.