Hamara Beej

Monday, October 26, 2009

Brinjal story: Original or Modified?

Brinjal has become the much talked about vegetable now. Debate is ongoing over the commercial viability of Bt Brinjal, a genetically modified (GM) crop even though it has got the approval of biotechnology regulator in India, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). If the NGOs and food experts have vented their disagreement with the proposal; the government on the other hand is not against the introduction. The decision for this though will be taken early next year. Government has specified that this step will be initiated only after having discussion with farmers, scientists, NGOs and consumer groups. The agricultural ministry has also made it official that it is not going to oppose the introduction without weighing the pros and cons.
At the same time voluntary organisations like Greenpeace has already opposed the move. The point which Greenpeace has raised is that since India is the country where Brinjal has originated it would be first time that in the same country genetically modified crop will also be grown. This can endanger bio-diversity. Apart from this, R.V.Giri, the secretary of Consortium of Indian Farmers Association of Tamil Nadu Chapter, has also raised concerns whether cultivation of this crop would render the lands unsuitable for any other crops. This would result in total dependence on Bt crops and the seeds of which will be much costly in comparison to original variety. It will also mean we would depend on US for importing Bt seeds.
Question is how the people react to this. Firstly, are they aware why this measure is being taken. Bt Brinjal is a transgenic crop tolerant to fruit and shoot borer (FSB). It is to be noted that this pest destroys a major bulk of this crop every year that is 60%-70% even after extensive use of insecticides. In a report prepared by Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR) Rs. 5952 per acre is spent to combat FSB in a cropping season. And the results are glaring. There has been emergence of secondary pests as primary pests became resistant to pesticides . Not to forget the possibility of health hazards for the farmers. The most critical factor is that pesticide residues are formed on the edible fruit.
We have to keep in mind that the current method of growing Brinjal is not sustainable as it entails to increasing cost of production and has toxic effects on crops. This procedure also has adverse impact on environment, soil and groundwater as pesticides has to be used at frequent intervals. Moreover, there is a challenge to increase agriculture production to meet the growing food needs of the country. GM crops suitably fit these requirements. Bt Brinjal has pest-resistant character after a gene (cry1Ac gene) is introduced in it. The gene is derived from bacillus thuringiensis a common soil bacterium and this is one of the reasons why Bt Brinjal is being considered.
But then the consumers should have choice over this, whether they want to consume GM crop or not. This would require a labelling system and the point is how this will work? Majority of the population in India do not go to supermarkets and departmental stores to buy vegetables but rely on hawkers and shops. So categorization at that level will be a tough task. Secondly, there are no suitable labs in India to test the GM product. Further, there is no clarity as to who is going to regulate these products whether it will be Ministry of Food, Health or any other department.
If there are apprehensions in the minds of the people whether GM crop would be safe or not, it is imperative on part of the government to make the public aware how such a thing is not going to cause any harm. We just cannot conclude by saying that GM crop is already being used in other countries and have been found to have no adverse effects. India has earlier approved Bt Cotton, the technology was successful in the lab but the reality on the field was quite different. Within few years Bt Cotton Bollgard II was launched owing to the increasing pest immunity to the first version. Moreover, 35 companies, which sold hybrid cotton started to sell only Bt cotton leaving no other option for the farmers. This time it is a question regarding an edible crop. If the proposal has got a nod after a research of seven years, in the same way the process should not be implemented in a hurry.
We also need to be very clear of our choices. The options we have are-we can either continue like this, go on eating 'organic' crop which is sustained through pesticides or look forward and accept a technology which may lead to betterment for the farmers and the food reserves of the country. This can bring a new revolution altogether in the agriculture sector of the country as we can look for ways to increase production for other crops as well. At the same time, there should be complete assurance that in no way it can have any side effects. If some scientists are arguing it as unsafe for consumption and some are branding it as safe, definitely governmentÂ’s initiative is very much required to clear the cloud of vagueness.
Government needs to put Bt Brinjal under stringent tests for allergenicity, toxicity and bio-safety before ensuring its commercial release. It also has to chalk out a plan on how it wants to go about as far as labelling and other regulatory procedures are concerned. Bio technology in agriculture holds new promise and we should keep our minds open in this case. The government along with this should also take proper measures to be transparent in its approach. We have to look into the fact how commercialization of Brinjal can affect the farmers. Change, if it comes for good first needs awareness and then confidence building. It is only then that people can accept it wholeheartedly.
-          By Shilpa Srivastava

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