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Who gives a brinjal?

In India, the Bt Brinjal is a hot potato. Never has the eggplant — still cheap in an inflation-hit country — attracted so much attention. Zia Haq & Snehal Rebello report.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2010 23:56 IST
Zia Haq & Snehal Rebello

In India, the Bt Brinjal is a hot potato. Never has the eggplant — still cheap in an inflation-hit country — attracted so much attention.

“Brief 38”, a primer on Bt Brinjal — the country’s first genetically modified (GM) food — brought out by the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, is being downloaded 10,000 times a month.

Genetically modified crops resist pests and give better yields as well as nutrition. But they are feared for potential health hazards.

Last July, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured Delhi’s Pusa Institute — a state-run farm lab — activists slammed India’s GM programme. The spat is now a raging national debate, as India contemplates whether to allow Bt Brinjal to be grown commercially. Scientists and public advocacy groups want it canned.

The fence runs right through the government. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh wants a national consensus to decide Bt Brinjal’s fate. Farm minister Sharad Pawar and science minister Prithviraj Chavan are said to be in its favour. The ball will soon be in the Prime Minister’s court. What’s happening?

Developed by Indian seed firm Mahyco, where controversial US biotech firm Monsanto has a stake, the Bt Brinjal has a gene — Cry1Ac — inserted into it.

Typically, a pest called fruit-and-shoot borer attacks brinjals, drilling holes in them. If the pest feeds on Bt Brinjal, however, its Cry1Ac gene will crystallise into needle-like shards, piercing the pest’s gut and killing it.

But critics such as P.M. Bhargava, one of India’s best-regarded molecular biologists, are unsure of its safety. “All reliable scientific evidence strongly indicates Bt Brinjal could be very toxic.” Mahyco Managing Director M.K. Sharma denies the charge: “The Bt Brinjal has cleared all tests required by the government.”

India’s biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), cleared the Bt Brinjal after it passed all recommended tests over six years in reputed private and state-owned labs. But Bhargava, among many others, wants many more tests done.

However, safety is just one of the issues. Critics question the very need for Bt Brinjal, as other pest management options are available and there’s a glut. In 2007-08, the country exported 338 tonnes of brinjal worth Rs 1.92 crore.

Much of the hostility is directed against Monsanto, the US company that gave the Bt gene to Mahyco but has nothing to do with the development of Bt Brinjal. Critics allege Monsanto is the real player.

Monsanto is viewed both as a biotech saint and sinner. For some, Monsanto’s seed technologies are the world’s best bet to tackle global hunger. Its sins date back to 2005, when, according to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the company bribed more than 140 Indonesian officials to get Bt cotton approved without environmental clearances. It was fined $1.5 million.

“Monsanto is notorious for having farmers jailed for saving their own seeds in the name of property rights violation,” says Kavitha Kuruganti of Kheti Virasat Mission.

“Local seeds will be withdrawn. We will be left with no choice but to buy Bt seeds,” says Avinash Patil, a farmer in Maharashtra’s Wardha district.

But other farmers are prepared to give it a shot. “If sowing Bt seeds increases productivity and prevents pests from destroying my crop, I’m willing to take the risk,” says Navnath Solaath, a brinjal farmer in Pune.

Activists have also panned the manner in which the brinjal was cleared.

The GEAC has laid itself open to charges of bias. A key institution that coordinated trials — Indian Institute for Vegetable Research (IIVR) —is part of a USAID-funded consortium for developing the Bt Brinjal. The IIVR is the recipient of a Monsanto project and critics cite a case of clash of interests.

Nine state governments, including three that grow more than 60 per cent of India’s brinjal — Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal — oppose the Bt Brinjal.

It is also a war of opposing ideologies, where GM is being viewed as “corporate control” over farm sovereignty.

Biotech can be crucial for India, whose demand for food outstrips availability. “It’s no magic bullet. But that’s no reason to withhold innovation,” David Speilman, co-author of the International Food Policy Research Institute’s “Millions Fed” report, told HT.

GM will work only if both farmers and consumers accept it, says Speilman.