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Brinjal a political hot potato in India
04.02.10 10:25 Asia rising
The fronts in Indias brinjal war are sharply drawn between opponents of the commercial launch of the nations first genetically modified (GM) vegetable and those who see it as a new avatar for the crop, which is commonly known as eggplant or aubergine.

The biotech industry and some government ministers, say Bt Brinjal, as the GM version of the vegetable is known, is "safe for human consumption, wont hurt the environment and can reduce dependence on pesticides. Critics point to gaps in Indias regulatory process, a lack of a labeling regime for consumers, and the imminent toxic effects of the foreign genes in the modified crop.

"The case of Bt Brinjal in India has now become symbolic because it will impact the future of several other edible crops which are now in various stages of genetic modification waiting to flood our markets," says Dr Vandana Shiva, an environmental scientist who opposes GM crops in India.

The government, which says it will decide this month whether to allow introduction of the crop, has so far stumbled between the lines, only considering the merits of public debate when the controversy threatened to grow into a crisis of confidence for Indian consumers. Half a dozen Indian state governments recently decided to keep the new variety - and possibly all GM crops - out of their fields, due to lack of clarity on the issue.

Such are the perceived dangers from Bt Brinjal in India that the Warangal incident is often quoted to support a ban. It was in this district in Indias southern state of Andhra Pradesh in 2006 where over 2,000 sheep died after grazing in a field of Bt Cotton for seven days.

Indian activists arent the only ones demanding GM products dont make it to dinner. Hungary banned the planting of US-based global seed giants GM maize in January 2005. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has similarly invoked EU safeguards to suspend the marketing and cultivation of GM crops.

Jairam Ramesh, the Minister for Environment, has said a final decision on the commercial introduction of Bt Brinjal will be taken after February 10.

Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has stood firm in his resolve to go ahead with Bt Brinjal, saying that "initially there maybe constraints but in the long run such crops will only prove to be an advantage for India".

Bt Brinjal has the Cry1Ac gene from Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) which is supposed to make the plant resistant to the Shoot and Fruit Borer insect that attacks it throughout its lifecycle. GM activists assert that Bt crops could pose serious health risks and hurt the agricultural industry.

Opponents of GM crops also point out that the introduction of Bt Brinjal would adversely affect biodiversity and companies would have a monopoly over the seed varieties, which will have a multiplier effect on increasing their prices. "The traditional brinjal crop - of which we have over 2,000 varieties today - will vanish if the genetically modified variety is allowed," explains Shiva.

Monsanto is promoting GM crops in India through Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech, its joint venture with Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco).

"We look forward to a positive decision because it will help millions of our brinjal farmers who have been suffering from the havoc caused by the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (BFSB), Raju Barwale, Mahycos managing director, said in October. "Bt brinjal will help them tackle this pest in an environment-friendly manner and increase yields and farm income."

Monsanto has been saying that GM activists are irrationally opposing new technology. Normal farmer sprays pesticide at least 50 to 80 times in the whole lifecycle of a brinjal crop, which does far more damage as GM technology isnt harmful to humans, it argues.

However, GM opponents arent convinced. "The Bt toxin gene produces poison and when it can harm pests, wheres the proof that it wont be harmful to humans?" Shiva asked. "The GM agenda is dictated by the profitability for multinational and Indian seed companies and not by concerns relating to food productivity, security or public safety."

Concerns about the impact of Bt Brinjal are vital for India as brinjal is used extensively in ayurvedic medicines. Bt brinjal would also have a significant negative economic impact on farmers, observers say. They point to Vidarbha region in Indias western state of Maharashtra, where farmer suicides showed a dramatic upward spiral from 2,000 to 4,000 within a span of few years after the introduction of Bt cotton.

Due diligence is critical here as other genetically modified food crops are awaiting approval.

Ramesh, the environment minister, voiced apprehension about the crop last year and set up an expert panel (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) to regulate research, testing and commercial release of GM crops, foods and organisms. But the outfit was accused of bypassing safety and environmental concerns and working ``to promote the interests of the international biotech industry”.

Ramesh even went on record to state that the "expert panel [Genetic Engineering Approval Committee] may well be a statutory body but when critical issues of human safety are involved, the government has every right and in fact, has basic responsibility to take the final decision based on the panels suggestions."

Fingers were also pointed at the composition and functioning of the 16-member expert committee that granted approval to Bt Brinjal. Professor Arjula Reddy, who chairs the Committee, was reportedly under tremendous pressure to clear Bt Brinjal. Another committee member, Dr K K Tripathy, was under investigation by the Central Vigilance Commission for alleged abuse of power to promote interests of certain companies. Dr Mathura Rai of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) was reportedly a Bt Brinjal developer-turned-committee member.

Governmental consultations and conclusions ought to have transpired before and not after 2006 when Mahyco got permission to carry out field trials for Bt Brinjal in India.

Besides, India, as a signatory to the Convention on Biodiversity - and having ratified the Cartagena Protocol (CP) - is committed to the safe handling of genetically modified organisms. Brinjal is a traditional crop in India, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety has provisions that discourage genetic modification of crops in their land of origin.

GM crops in India also have pending PILs (public interest litigation) to contend with. In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Union government on a PIL seeking annulment of the governments order that exempts GM foods and crops from mandatory laboratory tests. The bench recommended that the state allay "fears of the petitioner that the government might be playing into the hands of multinationals".

Shiva asserts that India also lacks a crucial labeling regime which means that once Bt Brinjal inundates local markets, there is no way of distinguishing it from the ordinary variety, thus compromising consumer choice.

"Moreover, all research on GM crops is funded by private companies and then presented to the regulators for clearance, casting doubt on its scientific integrity, Shiva said. ``It is vital that research done on edible crops be transparent and publicly-funded."

Food scientists add that GM food labeling requires a stronger laboratory and regulatory framework than India currently possesses. Testing of contamination to non-GM crops is neither easy nor cheap. While procedures to guard against it are in place, implementation of these procedures in the farms and fields across swathes of the Indian countryside is a tough proposition.

Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.


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