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Sowing the seeds of discontent

india Updated: Feb 04, 2010 01:57 IST
Snehal Rebello
Snehal Rebello
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Niranjana Maru travelled more than 50 km from Wardha to Nagpur last week to tell Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh she was against the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal -- a genetically modified (GM) variety.

The ecological agriculturist, who works with marginal farmers, was among 800 people at the fourth of seven public hearings organised by the environment ministry in Nagpur recently.

“Farmers grow brinjal for eight-and-a-half months, producing up to 300 quintals per hectare and sell it for Rs 8 to Rs 16 per kg. The use of pesticide during these months is 0-10 per cent. What’s the hurry to introduce Bt brinjal then?” asked Maru, who has surveyed three talukas where brinjals are grown.

There has been unanimous opposition from civil society to the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, which has the gene, Cry 1Ac, from the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is supposed to make the plant resistant to brinjal fruit and shoot borer insects. Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) is developing the variety in India. Mahyco sourced the gene from US-based Monsanto, a producer of genetically engineered agricultural products. Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake in Mahyco.

In October 2008, India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the regulatory body, approved the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal based on a three-month study by Mahyco. Mahyco started its research on Bt brinjal in 2000 and held field trials in 2005.

But this sparked protests by activists, experts and farmers, who said the committee had not conducted enough checks, forcing Ramesh to conduct public hearings. He is expected to decide on Bt brinjal after February 10. If approved, Bt brinjal will be the first GM food crop to be commercially cultivated in India and the world’s first GM brinjal. India is the world’s second-largest producer of brinjals, producing 3,600 varieties that are cheap and have high yields.

Though there is no scientific consensus regarding the safety of GM food for human consumption, a section of scientists feel that it is being introduced into the market hastily without proper long-term safety tests. PM.

Bhargava, a molecular biologist who founded the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and is the Supreme Court-appointed GEAC observer, said, “The introduction of GM crops has tremendous health effects. It can lead to cancer, allergies, birth defects and disability.”

Studies so far have been restricted to trials on animals. French scientist Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini of the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) who carried out the first independent assessment of Monsanto-Mahyco's dossier on toxicity tests submitted to the Indian regulatory authorities said, “Bt brinjal may present a serious risk for human and animal health and the release should be forbidden.”

GEAC chairman Arjula Reddy did not respond to text messages sent by Hindustan Times.

Gyanendra Shukla, director of Monsanto (India), however, did. He said a third party had conducted toxicology assessments and studies, which the government had approved.

“There is no limit to long-term trials. Is it 10, 15 or 20 years?” asked Shukla. “And plants do not cross-pollinate. There is no question of pollens from Bt brinjal escaping to (and entering) a banana plant. These are

misleading statements.”

But activists fear winds could carry pollen grains from Bt brinjal plants and lodge them in non-Bt plants, contaminating them.

Stakeholders have questioned the GEAC’s nod for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, also because of the spate of suicides by Bt cotton farmers in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Bt cotton farmers allege that productivity decreased after the first three years.

Shukla rejected this, saying, “There are no studies to prove this. Since the genetic engineering technology for Bt cotton was introduced seven years ago, 90 per cent of farmers have adopted it. If there was a problem, why would anyone use it? Bt cotton has transformed India from an importer to a net exporter,” Shukla said.

But Sheela Wankhede, who had come to Nagpur, disagreed. Her debt-ridden husband, Deorao Wankhede, hanged himself last year after his two-acre plot didn’t yield enough Bt cotton. The Vidarbha farmer even sold his land.

“The first three years produced 20 quintals. But in the fourth year, the yield was down to 8,” said the widow who also attended the Nagpur meeting.

“For small farmers like me, Bt brinjal will be a similar tragedy,” she said.