More than eight years after the then UPA government imposed a “moratorium” on commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in the Union Environment Ministry has sought to obtain “relevant information and data” on the post-release effects of the genetically modified (GM) vegetable from Bangladesh, where it is being grown by farmers since 2013.
The GEAC has decided to write to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) “to obtain relevant information and data on the post commercial release effects of Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh from Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI)”.
Further, the ICAR’s Indian Institute of Horticultural Research in Bengaluru will be directed “to undertake (an) independent scientific study on (the) post release effect of Bt Brinjal”, according to minutes of a meeting of the official regulator late last month for trials and commercialisation of GM crops.
Bt brinjal contains a ‘cry1Ac’ gene isolated from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The gene codes for a protein toxic to the fruit and shoot borer (FSB), a major insect pest that attacks the brinjal crop throughout its life cycle. The technology for Bt brinjal — the process of integrating the foreign gene into the host plant, which includes developing the protocols as well as identifying the specific location in the genome where the insertion is to take place — was developed by the Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco).
Based on data generated from large-scale field trials and bio-safety studies conducted from 2006, the GEAC had concluded that Bt brinjal was “safe for environmental release” and forwarded its recommendations to the Environment Ministry in October 2009. However, the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, in February 2010, announced an indefinite moratorium on the GM crop’s commercial cultivation, citing the need for “independent” scientific studies to establish the safety of the product and determine its long-term impact on human health and the environment.
Subsequently, Mahyco offered the Bt brinjal technology to BARI, Bangladesh’s premier farm research institution. The ‘cry1Ac’ Bt gene was introgressed into four open pollinated varieties of brinjal bred by BARI — ‘Uttara’, ‘Nayantara’, ‘Kajla’ and ‘ISD-006’.
A recent BARI presentation showed the total area planted under Bt brinjal in Bangladesh during the 2017-18 season at 3,439.06 acres, up from 6.66 acres in 2013-14, when it was first commercialised. While this is still small compared to the overall 80,000-acres winter brinjal area in Bangladesh, BARI estimates that over 27,000 farmers are already planting the GM crop. Incidentally, the GEAC meeting’s minutes has mentioned that “Bt Brinjal is presently being grown approximately by 50,000 farmers” in Bangladesh.
BARI has further claimed that the infestation of the FSB pest on Bt brinjal in actual farmers’ fields was 0-2.9 per cent in the plant shoots and 0-3.01 per cent in the fruits. The corresponding infestation range in normal non-Bt brinjal was much higher at 2.7-90 per cent and 4.8-67.25 per cent. The average fruit yield due to less pest damage was 23.95 tonnes per hectare for Bt brinjal, as against 12.89 tonnes for non-Bt.
Mahyco has also licensed its Bt brinjal technology to the University of the Philippines at Los Banos, with the approval for commercial cultivation in the country slated before the end of this year. “It is unfortunate the benefits of a technology developed in India are reaped by farmers of other countries. Why are we stopping our own farmers from planting GM crops, while importing soyabean oil, canola oil and maize/corn having transgenic traits?” said Bhagirath Choudhary, founder-director of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre, a New Delhi-based GM advocacy organisation.
Meanwhile, GEAC has allowed the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University to conduct field demonstration studies on the impact of its GM mustard on honeybees and other pollinators. The studies will be done in two locations — the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi and the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana — and in a total area not exceeding 5 acres each.
Like Bt brinjal, commercial release of GM mustard — it incorporates three foreign genes that allow for cross-pollination and development of commercially viable hybrids in a largely self-pollinating plant — has been stuck due to the governments of both UPA and NDA caving in to opposition from green groups. Among the fears expressed by environmentalists and also the RSS-backed Swadeshi Jagran Manch is that the transgenic mustard would hinder the foraging activity of honeybees, though the technology developers have pointed out that the hybrid crop would produce more flowers per plant and, hence, attract more rather than less pollinator insects.