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A Long Rough Ride for Genetically Modified Brinjal in India

The fruit and shoot borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) of brinjal causes crop losses of 50 to 70 percent. Farmers are prone to an indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides around 25 to 80 sprays and this involves heavy expenditure and results in blemished fruits. Excessive chemical use also leads to a build up of pesticide residues in the produce, destruction of beneficial insects, pest resurgence, exposure of farm workers to pesticides and environmental pollution. Weep 1 Ac gene from Bacillus thuringiensis inserted into brinjal varieties (Bt brinjal), like genetically modified cotton, provides an inbuilt pest control mechanism to save the crop from hurt, reduce cultivation costs and prevent the incidental health and environmental hazards.

Mahyco have developed Bt Brinjal hybrids, and also have entered into a partnership with public institutions to develop local varieties with the Bt gene.

Mahyco approached the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for permission to conduct large-scale open field trials. No sooner, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad and Greenpeace India trashed the concept of Bt brinjal, brought out position papers and represented to the GEAC against Mahyco’s request. Though there were also representations to the GEAC in favour of Bt brinjal, the GEAC was honest to the anti-biotech lobby, and constituted a committee to look into this contentious issue. Not satisfied with the composition of GEAC’s Committee, the anti-biotech lobby has constituted its own ‘independent committee of experts’, a sort of a parallel ‘GEAC’. Although apparently this committee is meant to block genetically modified brinjal, nothing prevents it from gaining fresh lease of life to pontify on other genetically engineered crops.

A number of questions raised by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and Greenpeace regarding genetically modified brinjal were discussed on this site earlier.

Bt brinjal was subjected to a variety of tests and analyses and the details are available on the website of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. None of these studies have indicated any negative possibilities that warrant banning Bt brinjal from commercial cultivation.

During the development of Bt brinjal by Mahyco since the year 2000, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR, Government of India) and the Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India) were monitoring multi-location field trials. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, an ICAR institution, which has a considerable experience with Bt brinjal, is also associated. A number of private and public sector institutions/organizations are involved in the mandatory and supplementary tests and analyses, as below:

a) Acute oral toxicity in rats, mucous membrane irritation tests in female rabbits, and primary skin irritation tests in rabbits: Intox, Pune.

b) Effects on non-target and beneficial insects: All India Co-ordinate Research Project (Vegetable Crops), Varanasi.

c) Assessment of allergenicity: Rallis India Ltd., Bangalore.

d) Dietary feed responses of the common carp and growth performances: Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Mumbai.

e) Effects on broiler chickens: Central Avian Research Institute, Izatnagar.

f) Subchronic feeding tests on rabbits and goats: Advinus Therapeutic, Bangalore.

g) Feeding experiments on cows: GB Pant University of Agricultural Sciences, Pantnagar.

h) Molecular finger printing and chemical studies: Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad.

This belies the charge that open field trials of Bt brinjal are being conducted by the companies and without independent verification of the safety claims made by the product developers. If one believes the anti-tech lobby, all these public and private sector investigating agencies are in collusion with the product developers.

Efficacy studies showed that Bt brinjal varieties effectively controlled the brinjal stem and fruit borer and the American bollworm, with an insect mortality of 98 percent.

Various other parameters comparing Bt and non-Bt varieties of brinjal, such as pollen flow, seed germination and weediness, aggressiveness, accumulation of Bt proteins in the soil, soil micro-biota, Substantial Equivalence, protein expression, baseline susceptibility, the extent of refugium needed and its benefits and socio-economic and risk assessment, etc., were examined, none of which indicates that Bt brinjal is undesirable.

The Bt brinjal varieties were found to be Substantially Equivalent to their non-Bt isogenics in such factors as chemical constituents, moisture, proteins, oil, ash, carbohydrates, calories per fruit, nitrogen, ash and crude fiber contents in leaf, stem and root tissues, cooking qualities and protein estimation in cooked fruits.

None of this goes well with the protesters.

While considering a Public Interest Litigation against all genetically engineered (GE) products, the Supreme Court of India (SCI) directed the GEAC recently, not to accord approval for fresh field trials of GE crops and this has place Mahyco’s application for large-scale open field trials of Bt brinjal on hold. Though the ruling of the SCI, but, does not bar the GEAC’s brinjal Committee from functioning, Bt brinjal has still a long rough road to travel to commercialization.

Dr Rao is an agricultural biotechnology expert who uses his skills to highlight the potential benefits of genetically modified food. To read more about Dr Rao, go to fbaeblog.org/ fbaeblog.org/



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