Monday, November 23, 2009

The Bt Brinjal debate

Many questions crop up even as an expert committee gives clearance for cultivation of Bt Brinjal

The approval given to cultivation of genetically modified (GM) Bt Brinjal crop by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) would pave the way for entry of the first GM food crop to be grown in India. Considering that the Bt Cotton transgenic crop's introduction earlier yielded a mixed and worrying bag of results - high yield in many areas but offset by the high prices of both the seeds and the continued dependence on non-Bt specific pesticides, not to mention the adverse effects of pests developing resistance to the gene, the introduction of Bt Brinjal has received a lot of opposition.

Presence of pesticidal toxins, thereby increase in pest resistance and therefore increased yield is the much touted advantage of the Bt variety of Brinjal. While much of the claims of opposition to the introduction to Bt Brinjal crop has also involved a rejection of GM crops in general- GM crops are widely grown in many countries, while they are banned in others - there are indeed some valid concerns. The well known reservations with agro-biotechnology - the introduction of desired traits within plants through recombinant DNA technology, concerns about the "accuracy" of trangene introduction into parent genome - have come into play vis-a-vis Bt Brinjal as well. The expert committee set to evaluate the introduction of Bt Brinjal does not say much about the possible after-effects in the food chain, and considering that concerns remain about genetic instability and other biological problems in consumers, this is a major misgiving.

Another major concern with Bt Brinjal introduction remains the monopolisation of GM crop techniques by large private corporations. The seed production of Bt Brinjal is limited to Mahyco-Monsanto and the Bt Cotton precedent of seed companies' cartelisation should be cautionary. The cost of license fees for Bt Brinjal and its seed pricing have to be scrutinised before its introduction. Bt Cotton introduction, contrary to its promise, did not necessarily increase yield through pest resistance immediately; and the high cost of the seeds affected many cotton farmers. Mahyco-Monsanto was indicted and forced to lower prices of Bt Cotton seed under the Monopoly and Restrictive Trade Practices Act (MRTP) in 2006. The Bt variety of GM crop had been marketed by corporations for its "high yield" and "pest resistance". Taking recourse to the Bt Cotton precedent again, it is not clear whether pests could develop resistance to the Bt variety thereby defeating the very purpose of its use. Mahyco-Monsanto's recommendations for mitigating such a situation - growing non Bt and Bt crops by interspersing them and to prevent development of resistance in pests - are not conducive for small holding based farms in India.

It has to be said that enough has not been done to protect interests of farmers against the threat of monopolisation of seed sale. Very little has been done about breaking the monopoly held by select multinationals over Bt technology, either by developing alternative low cost Bt technologies through research or by invoking licensing provisions of the patents act. Generically, more important characteristics of crops that need to be targeted for Indian conditions of farming, include drought and salinity resistance, and cold/heat tolerance. These and other necessary characteristics can be achieved with transgenic crops or with genetic marker assisted breeding which are "non-invasive" compared to GM technology. The presence of a national biotechnology regulatory authority which would look into these and other aspects of the GM technology being introduced, its after-effects and relevance to the specific nature of Indian farming, is much needed. Also required is greater emphasis on public sector research in biotechnological solutions to crop use to lessen dependence on monopoly profit-focused vendors. The idea for a regulatory authority was mooted way back in 2004, but beyond publishing a draft of the enabling bill for the authority, very little has been done on this front as the initiative has been caught up in bureaucratic wrangle.

1 comment:

Minanath Dhaske said...