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Bt-Brinjal - Not A Threat to Native Varieties and Safety
T. M. Manjunath (Consultant - AgriBiotechnology & Integrated Pest Management Bengaluru, India). AgBioView,
The public hearing on Bt-brinjal conducted by the Hon'ble Minister for Environment, Mr Jairam Ramesh, at Bengaluru on Feb 6th went as expected - it was dominated by aggressive and professional agitators, too many volunteers to speak, the atmosphere was noisy and not conducive to express any scientific views and, moreover, any positive voice was insulted and shouted down! Therefore, many scientists preferred to remain silent or stayed at home. This was not unexpected. Mr Jairam Ramesh was sincere in his efforts, unbiased, showed a lot of patience and tried to maintain some discipline, but even he was provoked and made to lose his cool on a couple of occasions. Several issues were raised during the proceedings and I have made an attempt to clarify some of the misconceptions regarding Bt-brinjal.

One of the major concerns expressed by those opposing Bt-brinjal was that it is going to displace native varieties and also that it does not match some of the indigenous varieties in respect of flavour, taste, yield potential, medicinal qualities, local preferences, etc. Some went to the extent of demanding a ban on Bt-brinjal, alleging that it is a foreign variety and there is no need for it as we are self-sufficient with 'desi' varieties. There were also the other familiar accusations that it is not safe to humans, environment and biodiversity as also that seeds cannot be saved. Such statements clearly showed that there are misconceptions about Bt technology not only among some farmers and politicians which is somewhat understandable, but also among some scientists who have not updated themselves with the precise nature of this technology which is very disappointing.

Bt is only a trait, not a variety:
1. The Bt gene, cry 1Ac, incorporated in brinjal plants confers only an insecticidal trait to control Fruit-and-Shoot Borer (FSB) (Leucinodes orbonalis, Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) which is a highly destructive pest of brinjal crop irrespective of whether it is native varieties or hybrids.

2. The gene can be introduced into any desired variety or hybrid. Bt confers only an insecticidal trait in such crops and it should be clearly understood that Bt is not a variety by itself.

3. The cry protein produced by Cry1Ac is highly specific to insects belonging to the order Lepidoptera (moths and butterfly group) such as FSB and has no adverse effect on humans or animals as it does not get activated due to lack alkaline gut and specific receptors.

4. The University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, have introduced the Bt gene, Cry1Ac, into some promising native brinjal varieties that were already developed and have been under commercial cultivation. The seeds of these can be saved by farmers and used for sowing the next crop. On the other hand, Mahyco has introduced the gene into their own hybrids. All these have undergone biosafety and agronomic trials for 8-9 years and been approved by GEAC as safe and beneficial based on scientific data. The role of the Bt gene is to empower these varieties/hybrids to protect themselves from Fruit-and-Shoot Borer (FSB) which does not spare any cultivar. It is somewhat like a vaccination therapy!

5. Since the Bt gene is introduced into the prevailing varieties, our own, there is no question of 'Bt brinjal' either adding or replacing any variety or destroying biodiversity as alleged by some. On the contrary, it contributes to better environment and conservation of beneficial organisms like honey bees, parasitoids, predators, earthworms, etc. due to significant decrease in the use of chemical insecticides. Further, Bt-brinjal plants are not imported as such as mistaken by some.

6. The action of Bt protein is specific to control FSB. Except the presence of this deliberately introduced trait, it has been proved that Bt brinjal is 'Substantially Equivalent' to its non-Bt counter part in all respects. Thus, Bt gene only contributes to strengthening a native variety or hybrid in terms of combating FSB throughout its life without any compromise on its original distinctive features such as growth, yield, taste, flavour, genetic vigour, medicinal quality, etc.

Beneficial and Safe:
7. The Fruit-and-Shoot Borer (FSB) of brinjal is an active pest throughout the crop life. Being an internal feeder during its larval period, it is difficult to control it with the prevailing methods and has been responsible for 50 to 70% marketable fruit losses inspite of repeated application (25 to 40 or more sprays) of chemical insecticides costing about Rs.6,000/- per acre during a crop season. The brinjal fruits that came to the market were found to carry high traces of insecticides.

Trials conducted with Bt brinjal have shown that it can effectively control FSB (the newly hatched larvae die within one or two days of taking the first bite of any part of Bt brinjal plant) resulting in very attractive harvests and profits with drastic reduction (80%) in the use of chemical insecticides.

8. The Bt gene, cry1Ac, that has been deployed in Bt brinjal, is almost the same as in Bt cotton that had earlier undergone and satisfied extensive biosafety tests in several countries like the USA, Argentina, Australia, China as well as India. Bt-cotton has been under commercial cultivation on million of acres year after year since its regulatory approval in the USA and other countries since 1996 and in India since 2002. Bt-cotton has not caused any scientifically proven adverse effects on humans, animals or environment. Of course, there were wild allegations about its safety by certain NGOs such as mass mortality of sheep, but those were dismissed as speculative and unsubstantiated by the experts. As of 2008, Bt-cotton was cultivated on more than 80% of 9.4 million hectares of the cotton area in India by over 5 lakh cotton farmers who readily vouch that it has brought substantial social and economic benefits to them. The same benefits are expected from Bt-brinjal and the farmers are eagerly waiting for it.

Tested and approved:
Bt-brinjal has undergone about two dozen prescribed biosafety and environmental tests involving more than 150 scientists from reputed research institutions for 8 to 9 years in India. These tests included allergenicity, toxicity, out-crossing, safety to mammals and other non-target beneficial organisms, agronomic performance, etc. It is only on being satisfied with its Expert Committee reports and recommendations, was Bt-brinjal approved in Oct 2009 as safe by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which is the highest govt regulatory body comprising several eminent scientists in its panel. They are as much responsible and concerned about the safety of humans and environment as anyone else. Bt-brinjal is a product of high quality research in biotechnology and deserves to be approved for commercial cultivation for the benefit of our farmers.

It is worthwhile noting that Bt-cotton also faced similar opposition, but following its approval in March 2002, it has registered unprecedented adoption and success till date. Bt-brinjal will repeat the history if approved and pave the way for other biotech crops with new traits such as drought tolerance, nutritional enhancement, increased shelf-life, etc. The opponents may try to suppress or hide facts, but cannot change them!