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Economics for everyone…Bringing the BT Brinjal

Prof.M.Guruprasad / 15:05 , Mar 15, 2010

he debate over its introduction is hotting up. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh's sudden recourse to public consultations, after Bt Brinjal was cleared a..

Introduction: Bt brinjal, popularly known as Bacillus Thuringiensis Brinjal is at the centre of a major controversy in India.The debate over its introduction is hotting up. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh's sudden recourse to public consultations, after Bt Brinjal was cleared as India's first genetically modified food crop, has also raised questiones over the differences among the policy makers at the highest level. The issue over Bt brinjal gets worse with central government ministers contradicting each other.

The Agriculture Minister has reportedly said the committee's decision was final. Meanwhile, Environment Minister said that "the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee may well be a statutory body but when crucial issues of human safety are concerned, the government has every right . . . to take the final decision."

Science and Technology Minister said that he stood by the committee's findings.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) announced approval for large scale field trials for Bt brinjal6 in September 2007, and probably its commercialization by early 2009. It also cleared proposals for biosafety studies for other food crops such as okra (lady's finger), rice, and tomatoes.

In February 2008, the apex legislative body in India, the Supreme Court, revoked the ban it had earlier placed on the approval of large scale field trials of transgenic crops. Following this announcement, Bt brinjal became a hotly debated topic among activists, scientists, farmers and Multi National Companies (MNCs).

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 is said to give the 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.

Bt brinjal, a genetically modified strain created by India's number one seeds company Mahyco in collaboration with American multinational Monsanto.

The key benefits promised are:

Bt brinjal is resistant to pests and therefore will need less use of pesticides and insecticides, reducing the cost of production

  • It improves yields and helps the agriculture sector.

Why it is a debate: Bt cotton was the first transgenic crop to be released in India. Introduced into the country in the year 2002, Bt cotton became the subject of many a controversy.

Its performance, sale of illegal seeds, its impact on the environment, biodiversity, and health of livestock were all hotly debated.

The debate was further fuelled by the fact that there were wide differences in the performance results obtained by studies sponsored by the company, independent researchers, and NGOs.

The GEAC announcement regarding Bt brinjal, a food crop that originated in India, served to intensify the biosafety debate

Bt Brinjal is being developed in India by M/s Mahyco [Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company]. Now, the company was cleared by GEAC to take up large scale field trials with the permission of the GEAC in 2006-07. 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 could be giving permission for large scale open trials for a food crop in India Needless to say, 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.

Bt brinjal was the second GM crop to be cleared by the GEAC, this one at the instance of Monsanto's Indian associate, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco). And this is just the beginning of what could be a biotech revolution, for better or for worse, as many more crops, including cash crops, vegetables, fruits, cereals and pulses, are in the regulatory pipeline. 

In October 2009, the Indian biotechnology regulator, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee which is an 30-member committee comprising mainly bureaucrats and scientists, gave its approval for introduction of Bt brinjal, the first genetically modified food crop to be allowed in India.

The Bt History: Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is a Gram-positive, soil-dwelling bacterium, commonly used as a pesticide. Additionally, 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

B. thuringiensis was first discovered in 1901 by Japanese biologist Shigetane Ishiwata. In 1911 it was rediscovered in Germany by Ernst Berliner, who isolated it as the cause of a disease called Schlaffsucht in flour moth caterpillars. In 1976, Zakharyan reported the presence of a plasmid in a strain of B. thuringiensis and suggested its involvement in endospore and crystal formation.

Spores and crystalline insecticidal proteins produced by B. thuringiensis have been used to control insect pests since the 1920s.

They are now used as specific insecticides under trade names such as Dipel and Thuricide. Because of their specificity, these pesticides are regarded as environmentally friendly, with little or no effect on humans, wildlife, pollinators, and most other beneficial insects. The Belgian company Plant Genetic Systems was the first company (in 1985) to develop genetically engineered (tobacco) plants with insect tolerance by expressing cry genes from B. thuringiensis.

The making of Bt brinjal involves insertion of a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the DNA or genetic code of the vegetable to produce pesticidal toxins in every cell.

The Evolution of Bt in India: Background
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% of the fruit borer

The promises and claims

  • 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% age of damaged fruits reportedly ranged from 2.5% to 20% in Bt Brinjal to 24% to 58% in non-Bt counterparts
  • 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

In a GM product, the genetic material is altered to benefit the consumer and producer, as it is pest-resistant and promises to offer a higher yield.

GM Foods
GM stands for Genetically Modified. It is a technique of crop production that uses genetically modified seeds to raise crops that have some genetically ingrained abilities. It might be that some GM crops are resistant to a highly virulent disease, or that the crop requires a smaller gestation period, or any such desirable property.

The reason is that GM seeds also have the property that the seeds from the following crop cannot be used again. These are called terminator seeds. As a result, a farmer has to rely continuously on the GM company for the seed, and a highly specific set of nutrients and pesticides that come as a package deal.

Once these seeds have been released into the open, their impact on the native varieties of seed and crop are not fully known. There could a whole number of other effects from GM cultivation, which are yet to be fully tested in field conditions. At the same time, it is important that crop research continues, because the population of the world is yet tp stabilize, and food output has to increase to meet the needs of developing nations.

GM technology, in which a gene is transferred from a different species to imbibe a desirable trait, is touted as a long-term solution to the problems of pests, hunger, drought and even climate change.

Five giant corporations -- Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow -- rule the global GM seeds market.

Critics point out that the Indian regulatory regime with regard to GM crops has never been assessed thoroughly as to whether the right questions are being asked with regard to GM risk assessment in Indian conditions. As in other parts of the world, the current safety assessments are inadequate to catch most of the harmful effects from GM crops, that too in an early warning system. It is no longer in question that GM technology is unpredictable and imprecise, that too when released in an open environment situation. Therefore, there are many worrisome issues with regard to this Bt Brinjal too.

Transgenes in India
As discussed earlier, a transgenic crop, Bt cotton was for the first time introduced in India in 2002. In 2002, three varieties of Bt cotton hybrids promoted by Mahyco-Monsanto (Mech 12 Bt, Mech 162 Bt, Mech 184 Bt) were approved for commercialization in 6 states of India

Brinjal in India
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. There are many local varieties in India, in addition to improved varieties and 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 or so] 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 Big Debate on BT Brinjal
However, the debate over the safety of Bt brinjal continues with mixed views from scientists working for the government, farmers and environment activists.Environment activists says the effect of GM (genetically modified) crops on rats have shown to be fatal for lungs and kidneys. It is dangerous to introduce these experimental foods into the market without proper research; they say is a big threat to India's agriculture with MNCs charging Indian farmers for their seeds. The supply of seeds will be regulated and thus costlier. Indian farmers would have to depend on MNCs for seeds.

Key Issues
According to the claims by Mahyco introduction of Bt variety will help millions of brinjal farmers who have been suffering from the havoc caused by the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (BFSB). Bt brinjal will help them tackle this pest in an environment-friendly manner and increase yields and farm income. 

Environmental activists have over the years questioned the bio-safety of these products and pointed out that this is a form 'bio-terror' that should be curbed at all costs.

Brinjal has been in India for over 4,000 years. It accounts for half a million hectares of land in India with an output of 8.4 million tonne.

If the GEAC decision if approved by the government, it would also lead to other GM food crops, like rice, maize, soyabean, etc in the country.

According to some experts, majority of the necessary biosafety tests were skipped before the clearance was given and everything is kept confidential by the biotech companies whose data governments accept without validation. Meanwhile, the European Union has followed strict norms and countries in the European Union have banned the genetically modified food crops.

According to the former MD of Monsanto, the introduction of Bt brinjal in India will have a disastrous effect.

It may cause diseases like swollen face, itching skins, allergies, et cetera.Moths and butterflies would die and may led to their extinction, if they consume the pollen grains of Bt brinjal. 

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.

Thus there are potential Health and Environmental Hazards.

Also experts point out thatthe research phase of the development of the transgenic did not happen long enough or comprehensively enough for such lessons to emerge during the experimentation phase. Experiments then are happening at the expense of farmers!

Further, farmers from various parts of the country are reporting a decline in their soil productivity after growing Bt Cotton.

With the promotion of GM agriculture in general and with Bt Brinjal in this case, the rights of non-GM farmers to stay GM-free get badly affected.

  • While the companies are promising a pricing policy based on a cost-recovery principle, it has to be noted that such cost-recovery itself would be much higher than other seed accessible to farmers as of now. This involves both direct costs of research as well as indirect costs of aggressive promotion and PR that the companies would indulge in. The past history in the case of Bt Cotton shows that the company will go to the Courts if required to secure its rights related to pricing. Therefore, it is difficult to believe the promises on pricing.
  • In the past, several biosafety violations and unscientificities in trials were investigated by civil society organizations, including on Bt Brinjal. However, experts feel that the Indian regulatory system is week in not fixing any liability on the violators and by not strengthening its research regulation regime to this day. According to experts even though biosafety of the product was not cleared, trials were allowed to take place in farmers’ fields with no monitoring mechanism from the side of the GEAC and the state governments concerned.
  • There have been no independent tests conducted by the Ministry of Health, considering that this is an important food crop in the country. The entire approval process in the country is being pushed at high speed by the Department of Biotechnology, some bilateral agencies like the USAID and the private biotech industry. According to experts this is unacceptable since the primary stakeholders like farmers and consumers and some Ministries like Health are not being involved in these decision-making processes.

Some Concepts:

BT cotton: Bt cotton is genetically engineered cotton. It produces a protein which is toxic to lepidopteran (crawling) insects, if ingested in adequate quantities. The toxin produced exists in nature within the micro-organism Bacillus thuringiensis (which accounts for the "Bt" in the name). Genetic manipulation of cotton has been carried out by inserting a gene - Cry 1Ac - obtained from the bacterium. The rationale behind genetic engineering is that the Green Revolution, based on conventional methods of breeding, has hit a plateau. GE seeds with further quality improvements are seen as a solution.India has joined seven other countries - US, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Indonesia and China - permitting Bt cotton cultivation.

The natural gene Cry 1Ac has been further modified by Monsanto, USA. The transgenic cotton varieties containing this improved gene have been branded `Bollgard' by the company. In India, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahco) has produced Bt cotton lines by back-crossing the Bt lines of Monsanto with existing cotton hybrids. These lines have been named MECH (Mahyco's Early Cotton Hybrid) with a number suffixed such as 12, 162, 184 and 915 to identify the parental lines used.

Since Bt cotton is a genetically modified plant, it was not clear whether it was safe. Mahyco had to take government permission to sell the seeds to farmers. Over the years, environmentalists, farmers, scientists and political parties have raised concerns over environmental issues, bio-safety measures, and health implications and so on. Mainly, that Bt cotton will cause the pest (American Bollworm) to develop resistance. The possible adverse impact on non-target organisms, effectiveness of Bt as a bio-pesticide, the flow of Bt cotton genes to wild and cultivated relatives, and the presence of `aad' gene in Bt cotton (which is said to cause resistance to the antibiotic streptomycin, used to treat TB) are other concerns.

Alternatives ways: The Bt Brinjal field trials have been compared with their non-Bt counterparts and some national checks to understand the benefits that might potentially accrue to the farmers. They have not been compared to other safer, inexpensive alternatives, however. There is a lot of experience in mechanical control as well as non-chemical IPM strategies within the Indian research system. Further, there is much experience of non-chemical brinjal cultivation in farmers’ fields by many practicing organic and other farmers in the country which have all worked well for farmers. However, the evaluation of Bt Brinjal is not taking place against such options as part of the Risk Assessment.

Informed consumer choice requires that the introduction of Bt brinjal be put off till a mechanism of mandatory labeling is put in place. According to experts, what is needed is a public support system for such alternatives to be promoted, spread and practiced. Such alternatives inevitably show that the farmers benefit out of increased net incomes, derived from internalizing various inputs including Seed.

Organic Farming: Organic farming is actually a return to roots. Traditional farming in the modern age has come to mean highly input-intensive farming, using a large amount of fertilisers and pesticides to increase output. The dangers of poisoning food and damaging the ecosystem with such techniques have been well documented.

Organic farming is a technique that tries to use only organic matter in production, trusting in the regenerative capacities of the earth, aided by the use of biomass and insects like the friendly earthworm. Though still in nascent stages, the concept has caught on quite strongly in Europe, where consumer consciousness about the presence of hazardous chemicals in their food is high, as is resistance to the use of such chemicals.

In India, organic farming is nothing new, it is the way crops were cultivated here for centuries before the population got too big to feed with organic farming. However, though it might not be possible to convert all crops to organic techniques, it is possible that at least a part of the crop output can be grown organically, reducing the dependence on chemicals and going a little way in preserving the ecosystem.

Convention on Biodiversity (CBD)
India, as a party to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD)7 and as a country which ratified the Cartagena Protocol (CP)8, is committed to the safe handling of living or genetically modified organisms (LMOs or GMOs).India, as a party to the Convention on Biodiversity and having ratified the Cartagena Protocol (CP) is committed to the safe handling of living modified organisms (LMOs) or GMOs. CP provides a broad framework on biosafety especially focusing on transboundary movements of GMOs and also covers seeds that are meant for intentional release into the environment, as well as those GMOs that are intended for food, feed or used in food processing.

The CP provides a broad framework on biosafety, especially focusing on transboundary movements of GMOs and also covers seeds that are meant for intentional release in the environment, as well as those GMOs that are intended for food, feed, or used in food processing.

Biosafety can be broadly defined as those safety concerns regarding damage to human beings, the environment, and other living beings due to intentional or unintentional, authorized or unauthorized experiments using biotechnology.

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