Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bt Brinjal- The Indian Chapter

India’s biotechnology regulator Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), on October 14th gave its green signal to the environmental release of Bt brinjal, the first genetically modified food crop to be allowed in the country. With this, a debate has gripped the entire nation of whether or not to allow GM food crops as this could be a precedent for many other such crops.

Though GEAC has put its stamp on the crop, the final decision rests with the Union Environment Minister, Mr. Jairam Ramesh who has explicitly averred that the matter will be treated with no urgency and only after public deliberations will a final decision arise. However, apart from environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s nod, commercial cultivation of the genetically modified vegetable will require approvals from the ministries of agriculture and health and family welfare.

Currently, Bt cotton is the only genetically modified crop allowed for commercial cultivation and its introduction was prompted by its pests becoming increasingly resistant to pesticides. The commercial cultivation of Bt cotton has reportedly increased cotton yield from 308kg per hectare in 2001 to 508kg per hectare in 2006. The success of Bt cotton in India has in fact raised hopes for Bt brinjal as well. Although brinjal may not transform India’s fortune as was the case with Bt cotton, it might as well clear the deck for many such similar interventions.

The most prominent thing that irks the supporters as well as its critics is the absence of a labeling mechanism for foods in India. This will deprive the consumers to make an informed choice about the foods they consume. More over the labs in the country are not at present capable of identifying GM products, and there is also a big question hovering of who will regulate these products. Whether it will be the Ministry of Food, or will it be Health; Environment or Science and Technology or is there any other separate ministry to be formed in the future to look into the GM matters. Without a clear agreement on these issues, a decision cannot be arrived on this matter. But the time granted should be used constructively to assess the impact of the Bt Brinjal on the Socio – Economic tapestry of Indian Agriculture.

The ethical angle is going to be another major issue which is going to consume lot of newsprint in the coming months. Though scientific definitions may not delineate GM Brinjal as a vegetable with animal traits, to strict vegetarians willful mixing of bacterial genes may raise serious religious and sensitive issues. Cotton per se never faced this problem as cotton is not a food crop. Though sixty percent of the Cotton plant biomass is indirectly or directly linked to our food system, e.g. Cotton seed oil in our vanspati ghee or cotton leaves as fodder to goats and sheep, we have not yet been exposed to direct GM food crop like GM soybean or GM maize. Approval of GM Brinjal will open floodgates to most of them.

If the advisories of the companies are to be trusted, the transgenic vegetables are as safe as any vegetable available in the market, while Anti GM protesters paint a picture of a very gory world of Seed Corporations ruling the world. So where is the truth, may be somewhere in between. What can the Government do to inform the public, can we ask for every GM food be labeled like our green and red dotted foodstuffs? If after a period of 20 years, GM food is found to be dangerous, something like the discovery of toxicity of DDT after almost fifty years of indiscriminate use, will the mega corps pay for the clean up of whatever extent possible?

One obvious and unwanted fall out of this controversies are the misconceptions created in an uninitiated mind about the amazing science of biotechnology. This branch of genetic sciences has the capacity to change the world. We would definitely not have looked at a biotech Brinjal with suspicion, which produces insulin, or Vitamins, for example, instead of Bt Toxin. Valuable time and resources are being frittered out in search of finding a soybean which resists an herbicide rather than a soybean with double protein content. Maybe a corporation will not find it profitable but it could have gained a little more goodwill. Maybe government can take these initiatives and put forward legislatures to this effect.

- Anjana Nair-

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