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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Do we need bt Brinjal?

I write this article as a commoner having gathered a little knowledge about plant physiology from my study of biological science upto 12th standard. I am neither pro/anti BT Brinjal nor pro/anti indigenous Brinjal. I am in favour of healthy food. I also strongly feel that the Indian farmer who feeds us should prosper without being exploited. And, I like Brinjal a lot. Especially, the mouth-watering vaangibath and the delicious, hot gojju that my mother prepares using Brinjals! I just wanted to voice my opinion amidst the on-going heated debate across the country. This is not an expert analysis but a portrayal of the views and apprehensions of a layman confused about the whole issue due to conflicting opinions coming forth from different sources and the lack of consensus among the scientific community in this matter.
India has about 3185 traditional types or varieties (in common parlance) of indigenous Brinjal (also called eggplant). In scientific lingo these local strains are called ‘germ-plasm’. These indigenous types have evolved over centuries. Every living being in nature has an instinct for survival, procreation and proliferation. That is how seeds sprout, flowers bloom, pollination occurs and fruits are formed. The fruits mature and the seeds from these fruits start the cycle all over again. The mother tree ensures that the seeds are spread over a wide area so that the species survives and multiplies. Seeds are “engineered” to travel and establish colonies far away from the mother tree! Seed propagation is a marvel of nature. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” premise says that only the “tough” ones survive so that the species continues to grow in a robust manner. In this process, the plant/tree also naturally develops immunity against diseases and resistance to pests & insects which would otherwise destroy the species. This course of development of natural immunity / resistance occurs over numerous life cycles. Simultaneously, the insects and pests, which also have their own instinct for survival, also mutate to checkmate the progressive immunity / resistance developed by the plant/tree species. This battle continues.
The ‘green revolution’ enhanced the food production in India manifold during the late sixties and seventies. Introduction of hybrid crops had a dramatic impact and India was able to proudly claim self-sufficiency in food production. But, the same green revolution also increased the use of and dependency on fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides and insecticides. Not many are willing to openly accept the deleterious effects of unbridled use of such hazardous chemicals on the land and human population. The fertilizer subsidy in India is expected to be Rs.1.20lakh crores during the next financial year!
Brinjal is grown in about 5 lakh hectares in India. Karnataka accounts for about 25% of the share of Brinjal production in India while West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa produce almost 50% of the total output. Baingan is staple food among the people in Bihar and West Bengal and tribals in Orissa,. This crop (as also cabbage, cauli flower, tomato, cotton etc) is susceptible to devastating attack from shoot and fruit-borer (FSB) insects. These six-legged insects are called "lepidopterons". The FSB attack is so deadly that most of the time, Brinjal is a loss-maker crop. With huge expense on the fertilizers, chemicals, insecticides and pesticides, a farmer would be lucky if he can get about 50% healthy yield. Not many farmers take the risk of growing this crop. To avoid total crop loss, farmers spray pesticides anywhere between 45 to 55 times over the Brinjal crop. That is a huge quantity, considering about 1Liter pesticide spray per application per hectare. Pesticide/insecticide companies profit from the use of these synthetic and dangerous chemicals. Many of these pesticides /insecticides are banned in western countries. The high pesticide residue levels are hazardous to consumers. Any attempt to reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides/insecticides would attract the ire of manufacturers. That is one factor we should keep in mind.
In fact, BT spray was available as early as 1980s. But, the effectiveness of this superficial spray depended on weather conditions. So, plant bio-technologists, in a novel procedure, isolated a particular gene from BT bacteria and introduced this gene into the cells of plants susceptible to attack from the FSBs. When the FSB attempts to bore into the shoot or fruit, this gene gets into the gut (where exists a very high alkaline environment, pH being about 9 to 9.5) and exterminates the FSB from within. This method has been successfully adopted in “BT cotton”. The use of pesticides / insecticides has virtually been eliminated in case of BT cotton. Manufacturers of these chemicals are panicking. This is one more facet we should keep in mind.
Monsanto (MAHYCO in India) calls it’s BT gene CRY 1A. ICAR (IARI) calls it CRY 2A. This is a protein (alkaloid) which apparently causes no side effects and works only in a highly-alkaline environment obtaining in FSB intestines. The BT gene is supposed to act against all lepidopteron. But, how sure are the scientists that no adverse effects will occur due to their “playing god” and tinkering with the genetic framework? Despite all the advances in bio technology, the scientists cannot control or place the gene with certainty in the chromosomal frame. The man-introduced gene will go and sit wherever it wants; not where the scientist wants. This is a tricky situation. The resulting fruit can be different in many ways. It may be small or big with different shapes. It may be sour or bitter. The flesh may not be soft and may have any other undesirable character! It may even make you sick. Vast research in bio-technology has still not been able to overcome the problem of uncontrollability and this unpredictability. This is another aspect we need to keep in mind.
Any food material (natural or artificial) contains “allergens” (or "toxins") and produces "anti-allergens" in consumers. The effect of these allergens is what is called “allergic reaction”. Many a times the allergic reaction is negligible. Some times allergic reactions can cause death also if not medically treated in time. The type, intensity and degree of expression of allergic reaction varies from person to person depending on the race, health, strength, robustness, life style, food habits, weather and so many other factors. So, it is difficult to predict what food causes what type of allergy in which person! That is another point we need to keep in mind. (For interesting anecdotes, read the splendid science-fiction-thriller “Acceptable Risk” by Robin Cook).
Another issue concerns the soil microbiology. As is well known, soil is by itself a micro biosphere. When the shoot/ fruit-borer insect is killed by the BT gene, it falls down and is degraded. What happens to the free BT gene? Where does it go? Scientists say that the BT gene has a very short lifespan and cannot survive outside the alkaline environment. Yet, the adverse effects of the presence of the dead lepidopterons in the soil also needs to be investigated deeply. For example, earth worms and numerous other microbial organisms in the soil should not be impacted negatively. It has to be established that dead lepidopterons cause no harmful side effects in the soil bio-sphere.
In USA many GM crops (mostly BT variety) have been in use since 1995. The GM food is marked and consumers are aware of their identity. Other non-GM foods are also available. The fundamental right to choose exists. Strict controls are enforced there to ensure that there is no cross pollination between GM crops and non-GM varieties. In India, GEAC, the regulatory body governing the approvals for commercialization of GM crops has already approved the introduction of BT Brinjal. Next, it will be BT Tomato and many more crops. The Union Agriculture Minister and his deputy have shown their inclination to favor BT crops. The Union Environment Minister has gone all round the country to gather inputs from citizens. The entire issue has assumed political overtones. The situation has worsened so much that bio-technology as a science has seemingly lost its credibility and bio-technologists are viewed with suspicion by the opponents of BT technology! The proponents allege lobbying by the "pesticide companies" and the "Organic Farming Lobby". Obviously, the leftists and the intelligentsia are also fishing in troubled waters due to their ideological war against MNCs creating a fearsome scenario of agricultural imperialism. Each group is accusing the other of bribery, intimidation and buying favours from key government officials. Who is right and who is wrong?
Cotton seeds are fed to cattle in India. We saw some sheep die in Andhra Pradesh after eating BT cotton seeds. We also saw the fictitious cloning research in South Korea. Recently, IPCC had forecast the scary scenario of Himalayan glaciers melting on the basis of unreliable, erroneous and subjective data. Science has its share of black sheep!
Introduction of BT crops would make the Indian farmer dependent on multi-national companies. Opponents say the indigenous Brinjal varieties would disappear. There is no way anybody can control the gene cross-over from BT variety into non BT variety. What is the current productivity / yield of Brinjal in India? What is the demand? Is there a shortage of Brinjal crop? By what quantum would the Brinjal productivity increase due to use of BT Brinjal? How safe is it when viewed in the backdrop of food and nutritional security?
What research has been carried out on sizeable population (in statistical terms) to ascertain the negative effects on humans or animals who consume BT Brinjal? What validated, reproducible, peer-reviewed, third-party audited (independently verified), genuine data (drawn from extensive, long-term field trials in different locations) is available in this regard? Are there any black sheep?
I would not like BT Brinjal to push the Indian farmer into perpetual slavery with forced dependence on MNCs for seeds? What controls are in place to ensure that Indian farmer is not exploited? The MNC seed company officials may legally seek the help of police to inspect and verify crops grown in farmers' lands to find out the presence of (marked) BT gene. This BT gene may have just crossed over (through open pollination) into the non-BT crop grown by the farmer from seeds produced from his own (previous) non-BT variety crop. What will be the consequences that the illiterate farmer has to face? (This is happening in the IT field where Microsoft is raiding offices and establishments along with police to verify the use of pirated software applications). Under IPR regime, this is perfectly legal. If the seed company cannot prevent the gene cross-over and contamination of non BT variety due to cross-pollination, should Indian farmer face the legal consequences?
I also would not like disappearance of indigenous varieties of Brinjal. What checks and security apparatus are available to prevent cross-pollination between BT Brinjal and the non-BT crop if and when they are grown in adjacent plots? Can our farmers understand and follow the intricacies of control measures when they sow BT seeds? What allergens/toxins are produced and what allergencity tests have been conducted to ascertain the allergic reactions in humans and animals? I would be happy if farmers can stop spraying pesticides and insecticides. Use of less fertilizers and chemicals would also be welcome. I would also like to exercise my right to choose between BT Brinjal and the non-BT Brinjal.
The heat generated in the discourse on the introduction of BT Brinjal has masked the light of knowledge in this matter. There is a lot of confusion. People are not sure who is telling the truth. Who are we to believe? Who will separate the chaff from the grain? Is there absolute truth? The Union Environment Minister has indicated the possibility of many lobbies working in the background for and against the BT technology. If we miss the BT Brinjal bus, what and whose will be the loss?
I would be happiest if my mother can get good quality Brinjals in the market to make more mouth-watering vaangibath and the delicious, hot gojju!
© Bhanu Bangalore., all rights reserved.


  1. A well written piece bhanuavre...I would be happiest if our mothers could grow our favourite vegetables least a few of those in a small way in our our yards ,terraces etc and not be so much at the mercy of these power games.

    (You may want to google on "earthbox".)

  2. I would just like to draw the attention of people to what Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev advocates. He says that he has knowledge that Brinjal is terribly dangerous to humans seeking 'awareness'. Brinjal is supposed to be very deleterious to the mental well-being and is to be strongly discouraged from being fed to growing children. Brinjal, he says, reduces mental alertness and intelligence.