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Why Bt Brinjal Is Such a Hot Potato

Dr Sreedevi Yadavalli

Genetic Modification of plants, purportedly to make them more pest-resilient, give better yields, enhance nutrition levels, and overall, prove to be more beneficial for both consumers and farmers, are in for a good deal of controversy. While the benefits are in question, as a mapping of their use has thrown up statistics that belie their claims, the larger controversy is that of the health risk that GM foods pose to consumers. A case in point is that of Bt Brinjal.

Developed by MAHYCO (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company Limited) in collaboration with Monsanto of US, Bt Brinjal has a gene – Cry 1Ac – artificially inserted into its genome, mainly from a soil bacterium called bacillus thuringienesis (Bt), the same as Bt cotton. Typically, this genetically engineered (GE) variant of brinjal is meant to resist a pest called the fruit-and-shoot borer. When the pest attacks Bt Brinjal, the Cry 1Ac gene will crystallize into needle-like shards, piercing the pest’s gut and killing it.

Safety Concerns
Critics such as P M Bhargava, one of India’s best regarded molecular biologists are unsure of Bt Brinjal’s safety, and of the methods leading to its clearance by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which apparently took just an hour to pass a 102-page report, drafted in just two meetings. Bhargava was the only dissenting member of the committee.

Others are critical of the need for Bt Brinjal at all, especially when there was surplus brinjal production in 2007-08, with the country exporting 338 tonness of brinjal worth Rs 1.92 crore. Surely this meant that the usual pest management options available were working fine?

“We neither need toxic pesticides nor toxic Bt Brinjal,” said Dr Vandana Shiva, environmental activist and Executive Director of Navadanya, network of seed keepers and organic producers spread over 16 states in India, with 55 community seed banks and 500, 000 farmers.

In the end, bowing to the public outcry that grabbed headlines the several months, the ordinary brinjal stayed put, and commercial cultivation of India’s first GM vegetable crop was not to be. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh held that there was “no over-riding urgency to introduce it, especially when public sentiments have been negative.” He felt that a more “cautious, precautionary and principle-based approach” would be appropriate.

This was a huge victory for consumers and farmers alike, for a battle fought on the roads by the public, with demonstrations and representations, and also most conspicuously on the web, with votes, posts, comments and blogs. To quote Vandana Shiva, “The Bt Brinjal debate is not just about a vegetable. It is a test for our food sovereignty and our democracy,” 
Can you call a brinjal a brinjal?
No, as it turns out.
Bt Brinjal does not look any different from non Bt varieties. They cannot be differentiated unless subjected to elaborate and expensive laboratory tests. So consumers can only rely on strictly enforceable and regulated methodology for labelling Bt Brinjal.

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