Economics for every one…Bringing the BT Brinjal

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

March 10, 2014 11:23 IST | India Infoline News Service

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

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