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Bt brinjal may sneak into India if nod denied
Our Bureau BANGALORE . ET Jan 28, 2010
INDIAN agri-biotechnologists have warned that transgenic or genetically-modified brinjal could enter the Indian market illegally if the Union government refuses permission or delays commercialisation of the transgenic varieties of this key horticulture crop. Last October, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved the commercialisation of transgenic brinjal in the country subject to the final nod from the Union Environment & Forest Ministry. The ministry has currently organised a series of public hearing campaigns to elicit views from various stake-holders on commercialising transgenic brinjal.

“We have several instances of how transgenic crops under field trials or being tested in labs have found their way to farmer fields even before they are formally approved and commercialised. The Indian authorities should permit commercialisation of transgenic brinjal before this (brinjal) makes illegal entry into our farms and markets,” said Dr Shanthu Shantharam, a former transgenic crop regulator who had earlier served as branch head of Biotechnology Regulatory Services of the US Dept of Agriculture(USDA). There is some precedent to this. There have been instances of farmers growing transgenic cotton much before it was legally permitted. And experts say that illegal cultivation in India is quite common in case of hybrid varieties.

Globally too, there have been several instances of illegal cultivation of transgenic crops. Brazil was forced to permit the transgenic variety of soyabean once farmers began illegally cultivating it. Illegal cultivation of the crop continued in that country despite a court ruling banning such an activity. More recently, transgenic papaya which has been only approved in the US (in Hawaii) has already found its way to farms in Vietnam and Philippines, two countries which have not yet approved of this variety. “Transgenic varieties help to reduce the usage of pesticides something which would be of immense use for the small farmer in the country. Estimates indicate that brinjal farmers spend as much as Rs 6,000 per acre on pesticides, a figure which can drop by 40% to 50% if we permit transgenic brinjal. Field trials of transgenic brinjal have already indicated the crop’s bio-safety,” said Dr TM Manjunath, a leading agri-biotechnologist and the former head of Monsanto’s research centre in Bangalore.

According to Dr Kameswara Rao, founder of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness & Education (FBAE) the acreage under transgenic crops worldwide has risen from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 125 million hectares in 2008. While three Indian agenices have already developed transgenic brinjal varieties, field trials on brinjal or egg-plant are underway in Bangladesh and Philippines.
'Bt brinjal will not cause any harm to biodiversity'

Vaishalli Chandra, Thursday, January 28, 2010 11:52 IST

Brinjal, the humble vegetable, is now a subject of intense debate, as the country tries to figure out the benefits and harmful effects of its genetically modified (GM) variant. In Karnataka and many other states, organisations representing farmers are opposed to the cultivation of Bt brinjal.

But Shanthu Shantharam, a molecular biologist and biotechnologist, feels that Bt brinjal should be embraced. He spoke to the media in Bangalore about biosafety in view of genetic modification, and about the environmental and economic impacts of Bt brinjal.

Shantharam, who has served as the chief of the Washington DC branch of the USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services for over 14 years, later told Vaishalli Chandra that Bt brinjal does not need human trials and that it will add to the genetic diversity.

Why do we need Bt brinjal?
We need it to bring down the cost of cultivation. Sixty to 70% of planted brinjal is lost to pests during cultivation. Farmers use insecticides and sprays that are harmful to the soil as well as to the labourers working on farms. Brinjal has no natural resistance to the stem borer (pest). Hence, there is a need to have a variant that is resistant to the pest.

The alternative technology, other than conventional breeding, that helps achieve this is Bt. Through this technology, cost and pollution can be reduced and the produce will be bountiful. Moreover, the technology is ready to deliver the product now.

There are 2,500 varieties of brinjal. If Bt brinjal were to be introduced, will it not affect biodiversity?
The premise that that the introduction of Bt brinjal will destroy biodiversity is a scientific falsehood. There are no more than 200 varieties of brinjals.

These NGOs (those against Bt brinjal) have a political definition of biodiversity, which has no scientific basis. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research in Delhi, which is the world’s second-largest gene plasma bank, has only 200 varieties.

The idea that Bt brinjal will destroy biodiversity is nonsensical. In fact, since brinjal has no natural resistance (to pests), the introduction of Bt brinjal will help increase genetic diversity.

Isn’t there a threat to other varieties through cross-pollination?
The apprehension that gene transfer will result in contamination is a fallacy. Gene transfer is not an easy phenomenon. It has to be fixed in population through selection pressure. Also, there is no horizontal transfer of the gene — it will not transfer to animals; there is only vertical transfer — from one generation to the next within the same species.

You talk about growing Bt brinjal organically. Is it really possible?
Of course. Before the introduction of GM (genetically modified) crops, there were two types of agriculture — organic and chemical. An organic product is grown without the use of any chemicals. That can be done with a Bt seed as well.

The concern of the organic industry is market share. Even after over 60 years of organic cultivation, the products have less than 3% of the market share across the world. They (those involved in organic cultivation) are frustrated. With the introduction of GM crops, the share will drop further.

When a new technology is introduced, it hurts the business interest of the organic food industry. In fact, the UK Royal Society and other nutrition assessment agencies have proved that organic produce is no more healthier than a normal produce. I have nothing against organic farming – it provides a feel-good factor. But those supporting organic foods should not say that genetically modified crops are bad.