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Scientists fear widespread contamination of Bt Brinjal

To understand the extent of the damage, the Haryana agriculture department is getting the state’s brinjal crop tested to determine whether it is GM-free at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), which will share the test results with the Haryana government next week.

india Updated: May 08, 2019 20:02 IST
Jayashree Nandi
Jayashree Nandi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
contamination,Bt Brinjal,Fatehabad
The use of GM crops is contentious, with arguments existing on both sides. Still, with India not allowing the use of GM brinjal, the developments in Haryana are a clear violation of the law.(File Photo)

Farmers in Haryana and experts fear widespread contamination of genetically modified (GM) brinjal or eggplant in the state with the farmer accused of cultivating Bt brinjal in Fatehabad district in the northeastern part of the state, adjoining Punjab, admitting that he has been growing and selling the GM produce since 2017.

GM brinjal isn’t legal in India.

To understand the extent of the damage, the Haryana agriculture department is getting the state’s brinjal crop tested to determine whether it is GM-free at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), which will share the test results with the Haryana government next week.

Arjun Singh Saini, director-general of horticulture, Haryana, said: “We cannot take any measures to control contamination until the NBPGR test results are out. We have directed the farmer not to sell the produce.”

The use of GM crops is contentious, with arguments existing on both sides. Still, with India not allowing the use of GM brinjal, the developments in Haryana are a clear violation of the law.

On April 25, the GM-free coalition, a collective of farmers’ organisations promoting organic farming, said in a statement that it collected samples from a Fatehabad farm and tested it through the lateral flow strip method. The samples tested positive for Bt Cry1Ac protein. Brinjal is genetically modified by inserting a protein gene (in this case Cry1Ac) that comes from a soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into the Brinjal genome to make the plant resistant to some pests.

Jeevan Saini, the farmer accused of growing Bt Brinjal, said he has been growing it since 2017. “I was looking for a variety that would help deal with the shoot and fruit borer pest... A man said he could give me seedlings of a variety resistant to the pest. He handed over the seedlings to me at Dabwali bus stand near Punjab border. I don’t know where his nursery is,” said Saini, who brought 15,000 seedlings priced at Rs 8 each. Bt brinjal is developed by Mahyco and it is resistant to the fruit and shoot borer. “Bt Brinjal variety is being planted by other farmers too in Sirsa and neighbouring areas,” Saini claimed. “Last year, I sold it for ?6 per kg, this year, I sold it for ?15 per kg. The prices are low despite the variety being good.”

Last week, representatives of farmers’ and consumers’ organisations and scientists submitted a sample to Director-General of Horticulture and of Agriculture, Haryana, last week after Rajinder Chaudhary of Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan was tipped off about a special variety being grown by Saini. “We are concerned about widespread contamination which will impact farmers ... The government should act immediately,” said Chaudhary. Officials of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the ministry of environment were quiet about the development. AK Jain, chairman, GEAC said, “I don’t have the facts of this issue.” Richa Sharma, joint secretary dealing with GEAC, did not respond to HT’s questionnaire sent on April 30.

India is the centre of diversity for brinjal, both domesticated and wild, according to GV Ramanjaneyulu, agriculture scientist from Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. “India has a lot of variety, about 3,000 kinds of brinjal are grown here. It is also the centre of origin of brinjal. The lateral flow strip method gives the primary indication if the variety is genetically modified. Contamination of native varieties by Bt Brinjal can easily happen through cross- pollination. It may have already happened in Haryana,” he said.

“I can think of two ways that the seeds may have come in. One, they may have been illegally smuggled through Bangladesh, where there is commercial plantation of Bt Brinjal. The other is that hundreds of kilos of seeds were deposited by the company that developed Bt Brinjal to NBPGR after a moratorium was imposed on commercialisation of Bt Brinjal in 2010. I wonder if the company deposited all the seeds,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, convener of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.

In February 2010, after nationwide consultations with scientists, farmers and other stakeholders, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, announced an indefinite moratorium on commercialisation of Bt Brinjal. He said at the time that the moratorium will last till independent scientific studies establish the safety of Bt Brinjal’s long-term impacts on human health, biodiversity and environment. Bt Brinjal was found to be bio-safe for environmental release by GEAC in 2009.

Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Pvt Ltd (Mahyco), which developed the Bt Brinjal variety and conducted trials in India before 2010, said all trial material is accounted for. “There were no samples approved for environmental release. Only trials were conducted in compliance with the regulatory process and all materials from such trials are accounted for,” said a Mahyco Grow spokesperson.

The company has approached GEAC for revisiting its decision on the moratorium.

First Published: May 05, 2019 07:33 IST