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Bt brinjal in a pickle

Government must handle GM foods with care

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The controversy generated by Bt brinjal, the first genetically modified (GM) food crop, has thrown up several important issues concerning GM crops, the role of regulators and of global corporate interests in agribusiness. These related issues are as important as that pertaining to the safety of GM food. Firstly, the questions raised on different aspects of testing and risk evaluation have brought the technical competence of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the GM crop regulator, into question. Secondly, the question of whether the biotechnology regulator should be an independent body with a final say in the matter or should be merely a recommendatory organisation needs consideration. Thirdly, if the regulator is a toothless subordinate body, then which ministry or department should control it? Finally, how transparent should the evaluation procedures be? Bt brinjal has been developed by incorporating into it a gene, cry1Ac, borrowed from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. This gene, when ingested by the fruit and shoot borers, the main pests of vegetable crops, produces in their bodies poisonous spores which lead to their death in a few days. The Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), a subsidiary of global life sciences company Monsanto, which has evolved the Bt brinjal, is reported to have shared its technology with two Indian agricultural universities — the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad — besides public sector research intuitions in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Several other Indian public sector research organisations and private seed companies are also ready with their own GM brinjal and other crops. They are all awaiting the final verdict on Mahyco’s Bt brinjal before seeking approval for their products.

Because of questions pertaining to the commercial practices of the global multinational involved, the very use of genetic manipulation of crops for combating the menace of diseases and pests, as well as enabling them to withstand stresses like droughts, floods, salinity and climate change, has come to be questioned. In targeting the business ethics of companies, there is the danger that we may question the very role of biotechnology in food production. If, for instance, the gene responsible for heat resistance in rice is inserted in wheat, the loss in wheat yield caused by the occasional rise in temperature in March can be averted. The green revolution of the 1970s was triggered by the manipulation of wheat genes, albeit through conventional technology. The future green revolution has to come from the gene revolution through modern biotech tools which can quicken the task. That said, it is also a fact that every new technology brings new risks that need to be eliminated. In the case of Bt brinjal, too, the apprehensions of the environmental and consumer activists merit looking into. The gene incorporated into Bt brinjal seems to have already got into the food chain during the field trials, though through questionable means. This is unacceptable and ought to have been avoided. There is merit in retaining a diverse gene pool in food crops and not allowing global corporations to acquire monopoly. Given these and other issues raised by a range of concerned citizens, the government should act after adequate deliberation and not in haste. In the meanwhile, the surreptitious introduction of Bt brinjal should be prevented.

First Published: Wed, February 03 2010. 00:37 IST