In 1997, in a field outside Delhi, government regulators forced scientists at the State-run Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) to destroy India’s first field of locally designed killer brinjals (aubergines or eggplants to the rest of the world).
India is littered with State institutions that fail their purpose or flatly refuse to crack down on erring colleagues, so the 1997 move against the government-grown brinjals was extraordinary. These were no ordinary brinjals. In the invisible reaches of their DNA, scientists had spliced in a gene that let the brinjals kill a caterpillar, which bores holes into it and forces farmers to use costly and poisonous pesticides. But the IARI scientists lost their field of dreams because they had not followed some of the safety procedures required.
India follows some of most robust scientific protocols in the world when it comes to clearing genetically engineered crops. Even companies that get a gene cleared for use in the West must run hundreds of experiments for years, as several companies and public institutions are now doing in testing transgenic rice, tomato and bhindi (okra or ladyfinger). The tests include proofs of no ill-effects on animals, humans and ecosystems.
So, it was appropriate that when Union Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh on Tuesday put on hold his government’s own okay to Bt brinjal, he said: “My conscience is clear. This is my decision, and my decision alone.”
By setting aside a nine-year process of scientific experiments and approvals and declaring an uncertain, unclear moratorium on Bt brinjal, Ramesh indicated he was taking it on himself to play God with India’s attempt to introduce its first genetically engineered food crop and kickstart its second green revolution.
The first green revolution, driven by chemicals and hybrid seeds, is stalling. Yields have levelled off. Demand is growing as India prospers. Farmers are struggling with climate change, especially an increasingly unpredictable monsoon. The environmental damage caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides is immense. The second green revolution holds out the promise of crops that — among other things — survive on less water, fight pests, and can be programmed to ripen early or late.
Genetic engineering, the manipulation of life at its most basic level, is a breakthrough on par with the splitting of the atom, and the discovery of fire. As fire enabled man to melt down metals and reform them into new materials, so too does genetic engineering allow us to take apart DNA, the building block of life, and refashion it to our needs.
Yet, as the protests that forced Ramesh to ignore the advice of his scientists indicate many are fearful, never mind if those fears are exaggerated and hyped.
The manipulation of the atom uncorked the genie of the atom bomb. Tinkering with the process of evolution could, equally, unleash unforeseen biological and economic problems, argue naysayers: Super-costly super crops that force farmers to forgo traditional practices; uncontrollable super weeds born after mating with genetically engineered super crops; and bugs resistant to Bt, or Baccilus thuringiensis, the soil bacteria that lends its name and genes to the super crops.
One of the problems with Bt brinjal in India is the association of Monsanto, the 109-year-old US multinational that part-owns Mahyco, the Indian company producing Bt brinjal. Monsanto has long had conflicts with green groups. The origins lie with its chemical business, which sold controversial products such as Agent Orange for chemical warfare and DDT. These suspicions have continued as the company became a pioneer and a world leader in crop biotechnology.
Other Bt crops, including cotton and maize produced by Monsanto and other companies have been reviewed, approved and grown widely in the United States, Canada, Australia, China, Brazil and parts of Europe. Thus far, there have been no reports of serious environmental or health problems. Then again, as the critics argue, no one suspected the long-term impacts of DDT, a great mosquito-killer since World War II. It was later cited as a killer of birds and possibly a cause of cancer and banned in the US more than 30 years after its insect-killing properties were discovered. India is one of only three countries still producing DDT (China and North Korea are the others), though it’s no longer used in agriculture.
The realisation of biotechnology’s promises will depend on how well we manage them. India has thus far approved only a genetically modified version of cotton, carefully watching its promises and pitfalls. The results have been scientifically promising, not so much economically.
When Bt cotton was introduced in March 2002, after similar fire and noise, farmers in the first major field study reported using up to 80 per cent less pesticide (some is needed, as the effectiveness of the Bt cotton against its tormentor worm reduces with age). Mint quotes a report from the State-owned Cotton Corporation of India as saying that between 2001 and 2006, Bt cotton helped boost yields from 308 kg per hectare to 508 kg per hectare (still below the world average).
Here’s the rub: Bt cotton seeds can cost up to 200 per cent more than normal seeds. Many Indian farmers fear a time when they may have little choice but to buy such seeds.
So, we can forgive Ramesh for caving in to public sentiment and overplaying his hand. But unless he quickly reveals a specific, clear plan for Bt brinjal, he risks jeopardising our next leap forward.