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APRIL 2009



GM crops make headway despite protests over economic, safety issues

Financial Express
Joseph Vackayil 
10th April 2009

Chennai: Inspite of huge opposition to the environmental release of GM (genetically modified) foods, Indian scientific and agricultural research institutions, universities and private sector seed companies are working on developing pest and virus resistant crops for human consumption using the tools of biotechnology and genetic modification.

Scientists, agronomists, environmentalists, social activists and farmers’ organisations are protesting against these crops because of economic, environmental and safety reasons. They also question the authenticity and capability of the existing regulatory framework of the Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

According to the data compiled by Bhagirath Choudhary and Kadambini Gaur of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), in India there are 11 types of vegetables, fruits and tubers under various stages of trials and experiments to create new varieties with genetically inbuilt ability to withstand or minimise pest or virus attack.

Of these only the GM brinjal (Bt brinjal), developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) with ability to resist fruit and shoot borers (FSB) has reached the stage of obtaining GEAC approval for seed production.

It is under consideration for commercial release. Mahyco joint director (Research) Usha Barwale Zehr has said that the company hopes to get the GEAC approval for the commercial release of Bt brinjal by the end of 2009-10.

The other crops under various stages of genetic modification are banana, cabbage, cassava, cauliflower, okra, onion, papaya, potato, tomato and water melon. These are far behind brinjal and are in green house trial or field trial stage. Cauliflower and okra have moved on to multi-location research trials.

Disease-resistant onion and disease and virus- resistant banana and cassava are in the laboratory stage. Insect-resistant cabbage, potato and tomato have reached confined field trial stage. Virus-resistant papaya and watermelon are in the green house trial stage being developed by Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) and others

Mahyco developed FSB-resistant brinjal or Bt brinjal using a transformation process similar to the one used in the development of Bt cotton. Bt brinjal incorporates the cry1AC gene, sourced from the soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), expressing insecticidal protein to confer resistance against FSB.

Mahyco has donated the Bt brinjal technology to Tamil Nadu Agriculture University, Coimbatore, and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad and to public sector research institutions in the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Promotion of Bt brinjal in these three countries and in other developing countries in Asia and Africa has been taken up by The Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII) funded by the US Agency for International Development and implemented by Cornell University.

Mahyco and the Isaaa researchers claim that “Bt brinjal was found to be effective against FSB, with 98% insect mortality in shoots and 100% in fruits compared to less than 30% mortality in non-Bt counterparts. The multi-location research trials confirmed that Bt brinjal required,on average 77% less insecticides than non-Bt counterparts for control of FSB, and 42% less for the control of all insect pests of brinjal”.

However, several agriculture scientists, environmentally active organisations like Greenpeace, and many other non-governmental organisations, farmers and social activists, have opposed the commercial release of Bt brinjal for large-scale cultivation and human consumption.

The opposition is mainly on the economic, environmental and health and safety aspects. They say that, “there is the possibility of the monopoly of seed production and marketing by a few companies.

This will make the farmer perennially dependent on the seed companies. Environmentally, there is the possibility of contamination and destruction of native varieties of brinjal”.

The other area of concern is about the health and safety aspect of the Bt brinjal. According to KP Prabhakaran Nair, a Kerala-based agricultural scientist, “The Bt toxin as potent as the cholera toxin, and a misadventure means putting poison on the indian platter”.

The Union health ministry and international research organisations like the France-based Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering, and Australia-based Institute of Health and Environmental Research Inc have questioned the health and safety aspect of Bt brinjal. They all say the studies conducted so far were not enough to warrant commercial release of Bt brinjal.

While Mahyco argues that the company has followed strictly all the norms prescribed by GEAC and has reached the commercial release stage, a public interest litigation argued that the GEAC norms are inadequate and there was no proper biosafety regulation.