Bt Brinjal : Issues and Concerns
- Recently, India’s first experiment with commercial cultivation of genetically-modified (GM) vegetables has come one step closer to fruition when the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) cleared Btbrinjal for cultivation.
- The decision still needs to be ratified by the environment minister before it becomes policy. (The final decision will come around march 2010) .The final decision to allow Bt Brinjal into the market is yet to be made.
- At present India allows commercial cultivation of just one genetically modified crop: cotton.
What are Genetically Modified (GM) foods?
- Genetically modified (GM) foods are foods derived from genetically modified organisms. Genetically modified organisms have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering, unlike similar food organisms which have been modified from their wild ancestors through selective breeding (plant breeding and animal breeding) or mutation breeding.
- GM foods were first put on the market in the early 1990s.
What is Bt?
- Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is a Gram-positive, soil-dwelling bacterium, commonly used as a pesticide.
- B. thuringiensis also occurs naturally in the gut of caterpillars of various types of moths and butterflies, as well as on the dark surface of plants.
Advantages of Bt ?
- The level of toxin expression can be very high thus delivering sufficient dosage to the pest.
- The toxin expression is contained within the plant system and hence only those insects that feed on the crop perish.
- The toxin expression can be modulated by using tissue-specific promoters, and replaces the use of synthetic pesticides in the environment.
- The latter observation has been well documented worldwide.
What is Bt Brinjal?
- Bt Brinjal is a transgenic brinjal created out of inserting a gene [Cry 1Ac] from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into Brinjal.
- The insertion of the gene into the Brinjal cell in young cotyledons has been done through an Agrobacterium-mediated vector, along with other genes like promoters, markers etc.
- This gives (so said) Brinjal plant resistance against lepidopteran insects like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit Borer (Helicoverpa armigera).
- It is reported that upon ingestion of the Bt toxin by the insect, there would be disruption of digestive processes, ultimately resulting in the death of the insect.
Why it is Important Issue ?
- The importance of this development can be understood from the fact that no GM Brinjal has been released for an advanced stage of field trials in open conditions anywhere in the world and that this is the first time that GEAC has given permission for large scale open trials for a food crop in India.
- Our country has repeatedly proven itself incapable of regulating GM technology and has allowed contamination as a routine affair.
- The proliferation of illegal Bt Cotton in the country is a good testimony to serious irreversible lapses that could happen at the trials stage.
- A vegetable, more than other food items, goes through very little processing and is directly consumed through cooking and therefore requires great caution in decision-making.
Origin of Brinjal :
- India is the Centre of Origin for Brinjal or Eggplant. Brinjal has been cultivated in India for the last 4000 years or so and has many historical references in various languages.
- It is grown all over the country, year-round and is one of the most popular vegetables of India.
- The area under cultivation is estimated to be around 5 lakh hectares. The total production stands at around 82 lakh metric tonnes. It is mainly grown in small plots as a cash crop by farmers.
- The average yields of Brinjal in India are reported to be around 200 to 350 quintals per hectare. The main growing areas are in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
varieties of Brinjal:
- There are many local varieties in India, in addition to improved varieties and hybrids. Some of the public sector improved varieties include Pusa Kranthi, Pusa Purple Cluster, Syamala etc.
- Hybrids include Arka Navneet, Pusa Hybrid 6, Utkarsha, Pusa Hybrid 5 etc. from the public sector in addition to private sector hybrids.
- It is estimated that the damage caused by the Shoot & Fruit Borer in brinjal which has been the major pest for the past two decades ranges from 50 to 70% and in economic terms, it is estimated to be around $221 millions.
- It is to lend tolerance to this pest primarily that the Bt Brinjal has been developed.
The Development of BT Brinjal:
- Bt Brinjal is being developed in India by M/s Mahyco or Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company in collaboration with Monsanto.
- The transformation work on Bt Brinjal started in Year 2000. Biosafety tests like pollen flow studies, acute oral toxicity etc., were taken up along with back-crossing programme from 2002.
- After two years of greenhouse evaluation, in 2004, multi-locational field trials were conducted in 11 locations with five hybrids [Mahyco’s MHB-4 Bt Brinjal, MHB-9 Bt Brinjal, MHB-10 Bt Brinjal, MHB-80 Bt Brinjal and MHB-99 Bt Brinjal].
- This was also the year when ICAR [Indian Council for Agricultural Research] took up trials with the same hybrids under the All India Coordinated Research Project on Vegetable Cultivation in 11 locations.
- While the ICAR second year trials continued for these five hybrids in 2005, three more new hybrids were assessed by the company [MHB-11 Bt Brinjal, MHB-39 Bt Brinjal and MHB-112 Bt Brinjal] and ICAR in the same year in eleven centres.
- Mahyco has sub-licensed the technology, as part of the USAID-supported, Cornell University-led ABSPII project [consortium of public and private sector institutions] to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), The University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad and The Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi (IIVR).
- This transfer of technology was apparently free-of-cost, with the public sector institutes allowed to develop, breed and distribute their own Bt Brinjal varieties on a cost-to-cost basis.
- In addition to Mahyco, the National Research Center for Biotechnology at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) is also experimenting with Bt Brinjal.
- They developed a Bt eggplant using a Cry1Ab gene that is claimed to control 70 percent of the fruit borerattack. This institute had taken up agronomic trials in a controlled environment in 1998/99, 1999/2000, and 2000/2001. In 2003 they were permitted to conduct field trials in five locations – Delhi, Karnal, Pune, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research.
Poisitive Views: (of the company)
- It is reported that the average shoot damage in Bt Brinjal hybrids ranged from 0.04% to 0.3% as compared to 0.12% to 2.5% in non-Bt Brinjal hybrids.
- The percentage of damaged fruits reportedly ranged from 2.5% to 20% in Bt Brinjal to 24% to 58% in non-Bt counterparts
- No significant difference was noted between Bt Brinjal and Non-Bt Brinjal, as per the company which did biosafety tests like acute oral toxicity, sub-chronic oral toxicity in rats, allergenecity of protein to rats, germination, weediness and aggressiveness tests, soil micro-biota studies etc.
- This will help small and marginal farmers from having to use 25-80 sprays of pesticides which are ineffective, says the company
- The company claims that human health concerns due to pesticide use can be addressed with this transgenic Brinjal with its in-built tolerance
- Company promises that through this in-built tolerance, there would be substantial increase in marketable yields. Higher yields would result in higher incomes for farmers, it is expected.
- The pricing of the seeds will be based on a cost-recovery model, making it affordable for all farmers, whether the seed comes from the private sector or the public sector, it is promised
- Farmers will be able to continue to save and re-use their seed for the hybrids and varieties because of this arrangement, it is reported
- Several studies on Bt crops in particular and GM crops in general show that there are many potential health hazards in foods bio-engineered in this manner.
- GM-fed animals in various studies have shown that there are problems with growth, organ development and damage, immune responsiveness and so on.
- With Bt crops, a recent study from Madhya Pradesh in India shows adverse human health impacts in farm and factory workers with allergies caused by Bt Cotton.
- Itching skin, eruptions on the body, swollen faces etc., were also reported, correlated with levels of exposure to Bt Cotton.
- A study from Phillippines shows that people living next to Bt Corn crop fields had developed many mysterious symptoms, especially during pollination time.
- It has also been shown from studies elsewhere that genes inserted into GM food survive digestive processes and are transferred into the human body. They are known to have transferred themselves into intestinal bacteria too.
- Bt toxin had caused powerful immune responses and abnormal cell growth in mice. It has also been shown that all the Cry proteins in Bt crops have amino acid sequence similar to known allergens and are hence potential allergens.
- Widespread scepticism had greeted the first cultivation of Bt cotton. However it has been an unqualified success with yields multiplying many times over.
- For vegetables—there are some 40 varieties in different stages of trials—the case for genetically-modified crops isn’t simply about higher yields. It is as much about developing varieties more resistant to pests, which destroy a significant proportion of vegetable crops at the moment.
- Estimates suggest that Bt brinjal could add to the current annual production of 80 lakh tonnes by 50-70%—that’s as much destroyed by pests. It will be good for farmers and good for consumers.
- Bt brinjal has been in various stages of trial for many years now. At least two years have been devoted to actual field trials in 11 select locations. No adverse effect has either been reported on the soil or in the consumption of Bt brinjal.
- Some studies suggest that Bt Brinjal may be more environment friendly than regular brinjal.
- Another concern often expressed about genetically-modified seeds is that the intellectual property is owned by multinational firms.
- In the case of Bt brinjal, however, Indian research institutions have been very closely associated with the research—the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad. The seeds are being manufactured by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company in collaboration with Monsanto.
- Given the periodic scenario of high food prices and reports of supply crunches, India has little choice but to raise yields of key foodgrains and vegetables. There is much talk of another Green Revolution.
- GM is one technology that can be used in the very near future to facilitate such a revolution.
- Many other parts of the world are already leading us by some margin on the production of GM crops.
Input sources: FE Editorials , Briefing Paper on Bt Brinjal by Centre for Sustainable Agriculture Link, Wikipedia, Times of India