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Do We Need Bt Brinjal?

Devinder SharmaDeccan Herald

The problem is that once Bt Brinjal enters the market, there is no way you can distinguish it from the normal ones.

After the rats, goats, sheep and cows, it is now your turn. In a few months from now, if the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has its way, the first genetically modified food crop — Bt Brinjal — will be on your table.

Whether it is the laboratory rats or the higher mammals, the animals have been more discerning. Probably they have the sixth instinct, which the humans sadly lack. There is otherwise no explanation why the laboratory rats, for instance, should always be spurning the GM foods. And when force-fed, rats have invariably developed tumours, develop deformed body organs, including kidneys and liver, and led to several serious diseases and ailments.

We have heard repeatedly of the death of sheep and goats when left to graze in the Bt cotton fields. First it was reported from Andhra Pradesh and now newspaper reports point to Orissa. Not much is however public about how the cattle react. Several farmers in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana have told me that cows avoid the Bt cotton fields when left to openly graze. 

The Bt gene that has been infused in Bt cotton (or Bt corn on which most of the laboratory rats studies have been conducted) is no different from the same gene drawn from a soil bacterium — scientifically called Bt — that is now being incorporated in Brinjal. This gene releases a toxin within the plant that kills fruit-and-shoot borer insects. The Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), which is spearheading research on Bt Brinjal, claims that the genetically-modified Brinjal is safe for human consumption.

So far, you have been made to believe that by proper washing of the Brinjal veggies you could get rid of the harmful pesticide residues. That may not hold true anymore. You will not be able to wash the toxins once the Bt Brinjal arrives in your kitchen. No, I am not talking of the pesticide coating on the outer skin. The toxin will now be within the Bt Brinjal itself. 

And if you don’t believe me, let us listen to Prof Dave Schubert of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California: “The Bt toxin is 1,000 times more concentrated than in Bt sprays, which do not themselves have a history of safe use.” In simple words, what Dr Schubert says is that genetically modified Bt plants, and that includes Bt Brinjal, carry a toxin that is a thousand times more potent than what is used to kill insects. Spine chilling, isn’t it?

Bt Brinjal is not a spray. It is a transgenic plant. The problem is that once Bt Brinjal enters the market, there is no way you can distinguish it from the normal ones. Your vegetable vendor will never be able to sell you the normal brinjal that you are so used to buying. Moreover, once the genie is out, there is no way to call it back. If ever Bt Brinjal turns out to be a health hazard, like the mad cow disease in the UK, the only way the nation can stop it from being cultivated and eaten, would be to ban its production.

Imagine, banning its cultivation in a country from where it originated.
To make matters worse, the GEAC has given permission to conduct multi-location trials on Karnataka’s famed traditional Brinjal varieties — Udupi Gulla. Cultivated for its special taste and unique flavour in the Udupi district of Karnataka, these strains are tied in such strong socio-cultural traditions that even today the Gulla Brinjal variety is offered to Lord Krishna on festive paryaya ceremonies.

Tracing the antiquity of the cultivation and use of brinjal in India, Ramesh Bhat of the Centre for Science, Society and Culture, Hyderabad, writes in a detailed paper in the journal Asian Agri-History that Gulla varieties (specially Mattu Gulla) are a perfect example of ‘plant-god-science’ relationship. “The example of Mattu Gulla shows how local farmers can choose a variety that meets their local needs and preferences, and is best suited to their specific local ecosystems. The practices adopted by farmers of Udupi have a scientific basis — both traditional and modern.”

Realising the uniqueness of the Mattu Gulla Brinjal, the Karnataka State Department of Horticulture is trying to preserve the genetic wealth by seeking a geographical indication on the Gulla strains. Ironically, the same variety for which GI is being sought by the Karnataka government is now ready for genetic plunder. The GVK University of Agricultural Science and Technology, Bangalore, is trying to introduce a Bt gene into the Gulla strains thereby contaminating the genetic make-up of the traditional variety. The uniqueness of the Gulla varieties, preserved for over four thousand years by local farmers, awaits erosion at the hands of agricultural biotechnologists.
Why worry about this Bt Brinjal, some might say. Isn’t it necessary for improving production and productivity, some might argue. First of all, let me assure you that there is no shortage of brinjal. Nor do the Bt Brinjal increases productivity and production. But what Bt Brinjal does for sure is to bring India’s first genetically altered food crop onto your dining table. It is time you woke up before it is too late. It is high time you knew what is being served to you at dinner.