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Bangladesh has approved four varieties of the genetically-modified Bt brinjal for cultivation, fuelling concerns that seeds of the transgenic crop could slip into India through a porous border with West Bengal, the largest brinjal growing state.
After a fierce debate, India put Bt brinjal under an “indefinite moratorium” in 2009 despite approval from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the country’s biotech regulator. Bt brinjal’s effect on biodiversity is a key concern as it could push out several traditional varieties in India, which is the centre of origin of the vegetable, plant biologists say.
The Coalition For a GM Free India, a federation of several anti-GM groups, has urged the environment ministry to ensure Bangladesh’s Bt brinjal varieties do not infiltrate into India.
Its concern stems from earlier instances of ‘backdoor entry’ of GM seeds when Monsanto’s illegal Bt cotton seeds began to be grown widely before being cleared by the regulator, prompting India to formally approve its use in 2002.
“The GM industry is known to have deployed this strategy to get faster approvals,” says the Coalition’s letter to environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan.
Once seeds find their way into fields, there is no effective way to recall them. They can spread quickly across regions.
The then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, had said there was no “overriding urgency” to approve Bt brinjal. Six premier Indian science academies, tasked with evaluating Bt brinjal by Ramesh, had declared Bt brinjal safe, but their findings said all transgenic articles posed a risk if the science behind it was flawed. India’s most well-known biologist PM Bhargava had led several scientists to present a dossier that had highlighted key safety issues with Bt brinjal.
A standing committee of India’s Parliament, which examined the issue, later recommended a probe into the way Bt Brinjal had been cleared, stating that regulators might have been under pressure from the biotech “industry and a minister” to approve Bt brinjal, calling it a “collusion of the worst kind”.
Bangladesh’s Bt brinjal varieties are based on a technology developed in India under a public-private collaboration by the Maharashtra-based seed company, Mahyco, with a key gene supplied by US firm Monsanto.
In GM crops, the genetic material (DNA) is altered for improvements in its qualities. Bt Brinjal, for instance, has been inserted with a natural bacterial protein, Cry1ac, which makes it resist pests and does away with pesticides. However, GM crops are opposed due to perceived risks. On-the-shelf GM farm produce aren’t labeled as such, and consumers cannot ordinarily distinguish between non-GM and GM food.
GM crops, which can improve yields, are being pushed not just by private firms, but also by state-driven research institutions, as developing countries struggle to increase agricultural productivity. Emerging economies, such as Brazil, Argentina, India and China, now account for nearly half of the world’s over 134 million hectares of transgenic crops.