Seeds of doubt in Delhi

Caught in the middle of a fierce domestic debate, the Indian government is wavering over the introduction of GM aubergines – and the rest of the world is watching closely. Joydeep Gupta reports.

The thought of genetically modified aubergines on the menu is making some Indians drool, but many more are feeling queasy. Reams of newsprint have been dedicated to the debate on whether or not Bt brinjal – as the genetically modified (GM) vegetable is popularly called in India – should be introduced in the country’s farms.

The enthusiasts say that introduction of a gene (Cry1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into brinjal will improve its resistance to common pests like the brinjal fruit and shoot borer, allowing farmers to avoid the use of insecticides and making the aubergine a healthier vegetable to eat. The detractors, however, say that India’s regulatory regime is too lax to introduce a GM food crop that may run wild and spread into neighbouring farms; that current safety assessments are inadequate to catch most of the harmful effects; and that GM technology is unpredictable and imprecise, especially when used in an open environment.

The detractors have won the latest round of this battle. The government has decided that Bt brinjal will be subjected to further tests before being introduced and that these tests will be “independent”.

Records show that the aubergine has been cultivated in India for around 4,000 years. It is grown all over the country, all year round and is one of India’s most popular vegetables. Around 5,000 square kilometres of land is dedicated to its cultivation and it is mainly grown in small plots as a cash crop. Total production last year was around 8.2 million tonnes. The main production areas are the states of Andhra Pradesh, on the south-east coast, Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal in the east, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south, Maharashtra in the west, and Uttar Pradesh in the north.

There is no doubt that the fruit and shoot borer is a major pest on India’s aubergine farms. Last year alone, it caused an estimated US$221 million (1.5 billion yuan) worth of damage. Mahyco, the firm that has developed the current version of Bt brinjal, says that the gene it uses gets into the digestive system of the pest and destroys it, leading to death. In the field trials that the company has been conducting for most of the last decade, the proportion of aubergines damaged by the insect reportedly ranges from 2.5% to 20% in Bt brinjal compared with 24% to 58% in non-Bt varieties. Mahyco also claims that animal tests for oral toxicity and allergic reactions have shown no significant difference between GM aubergines and their natural counterparts.

Addressing one of the main concerns of those opposed to the introduction of the GM crop – the financial implications for the country’s agricultural community – the company has said that the seeds will be priced so that every farmer can afford them and that aubergine-growers can continue to save and re-use their seeds.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests approved the introduction of Bt brinjal last October, stirring up a hue and cry. The uproar was exacerbated by the discovery that the approval had been based on data from field tests carried out by Mahyco itself. Voluntary organisations like Greenpeace, which spearheaded the opposition to the introduction of Bt brinjal in India, promptly attacked the lack of independent tests. And some GEAC members, including the respected scientist Pushpa Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, went public to say to say they were unhappy with the way the approval had been given.

All this prompted environment minister Jairam Ramesh to declare in October that he would hold a series of public consultations around the country before deciding whether or not his ministry would concur with the GEAC and approve the introduction of the genetically modified vegetable. Anti-GM activists were in a clear majority in each of these hearings and made it known in no uncertain terms that they would continue to oppose the introduction of Bt brinjal. Sensing the public mood, chief ministers of almost all the major aubergine-producing states declared that they would not allow the genetically modified seeds into their territory, even if the central government gave its approval.

But Bt brinjal had strong backers too. India’s science and technology minister, Prithviraj Chavan, publicly wondered how science could advance if it was to be held up to “mob review”. And the country’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, declared that the GM crop would be good for farmers and consumers alike, adding that, as a statutory body, the GEAC had the final say in the matter. This in turn provoked a strong letter from Ramesh to Pawar, in which the environment minister asserted his right to approve or overrule the GEAC decision.

In a parliamentary democracy where the council of ministers is supposed to take decisions jointly – and all ministers are expected to defend those decisions – such a public spat was almost unprecedented.

Ramesh’s decision earlier this year was, then, along expected lines – “pending further tests”, there would be no commercial introduction of Bt brinjal. The decision has now been backed by the same GEAC that previously gave the green light to Mahyco’s crop. While Ramesh faced flak for his decision from seed manufacturers, some colleagues in the ministry and a number of agricultural scientists, his position was strengthened by the backing of M S Swaminathan, a respected scientist often described as the father of the green revolution along with Norman Borlaug.

If given the go-ahead, the GM aubergines would become the world’s first Bt food crop to be directly consumed by humans on a large scale. But India has already been cultivating another GM crop – Bt cotton – for a number of years, and the results have been mixed. While farmers reported higher yields and lower pesticide costs in the first two to three years, the pests now seem to be developing resistance to the gene that was supposed to destroy their digestive systems. The effect of Bt Cotton on people who live near the farms where it is grown has not been systematically studied, but there have been anecdotal reports of a rise in the number of allergy attacks.

Opponents of GM foods point out that the modified gene stays in the human system long after the food itself has been digested and that no one knows what long-term effects it will have on the person eating the food, or on his or her offspring. Animal tests have not been conducted over a long enough period to answer such critical questions – questions leant extra importance in India by the 13-strong queue of GM food crops awaiting GEAC approval after Bt brinjal.

GM food crops suffered a major setback last year, when the right of European Union states to ban them was upheld. Now many governments in the developing world are waiting to see what decision India will eventually take on its aubergines. The effect of that decision may be felt worldwide.

Joydeep Gupta is
a director of the Earth Journalism Network at Internews and secretary of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.

Hompage image by Mimi K 

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