After a decade of moratorium on Bt brinjal, India allowed field trials to start in September, marking the first step towards the commercial marketing of what will be India’s second GM or genetically modified crop – after Bt cotton – and very first GM food crop. But environmental experts are warning that unbridled and unplanned growth could set Bt brinjal on the same trajectory as Bt cotton, whose commercialisation has been marked by poorly regulated field trials, inadequate safeguards and lack of transparency, and replaced other varieties by covering over 93% of all cotton acreage in India.
Concerns over safety, and hence the need for proper regulation, safeguards and transparency, are even more pressing since Bt brinjal is a food crop, which Bt cotton is not. The need to preserve indigenous crop varieties and seeds is also well established.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the environment ministry has allowed the field testing of two indigenous varieties of Bt brinjal developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in eight states – Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. These varieties were developed by inserting a protein gene (Cry1Fa1) from a soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into the brinjal’s DNA.
The transgenic brinjal was developed to resist the fruit and shoot borer, a pest that can reduce the plant’s productivity by 70%. The borer cannot digest the artificial protein, which kills it. Supporters of GM science claim this technology can increase the productivity and profits of brinjal farmers by reducing pesticide use.
However, experts point out that brinjal is not in need of GM intervention in India. Bt cotton catered to the need to increase the production of and income from cotton farming by protecting the crop from the bollworm that laid waste to vast swathes of cotton crop. Eight years after the deployment of Bt cotton, India became the number one producer of cotton globally and the second-largest cotton exporter in the world.
The brinjal, on the other hand, is already grown in such abundance that India accounts for 27% of the world’s supply, second only to China. It has been cultivated in India for 4,000 years, in 2,500 varieties, as per this 2010 Ministry of Environment and Forests note that argued that native crops should not be exposed to GM technology. The unregulated use of GM technology could kill this abundance of local varieties, farm activists argue.
Commercialisation of Bt cotton
GM crops, as we said, are developed by infusing into plants foreign genes that carry characteristics that are not natural to the plant genome. These characteristics could be pest resistance (cotton), additional nutrition (Golden Rice) or herbicide tolerance (cotton, soybean, etc). The most common genetically engineered crops around the world are cotton, soybean and corn.
In 1993, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co (Mahyco), an agricultural company based in Mumbai, partnered with Monsanto, an American agrochemical company (acquired by Bayer in 2018) to bring the Bt cotton technology to India. Toxins in the form of Cry1Ac claimed to have the ability to kill bollworms, the biggest pestilence for cotton crops.
Farmers in India started to cultivate Bt cotton much before its legal commercialisation. Field trials led to illegal cultivation and this promoted and hastened the process of commercialisation, noted Ian Scones, co-director, STEPS Centre at Institute of Development Studies, Sussex. This illegal cultivation occurred in parts of Gujarat in the late 1990s. In 2002, about 10,000 ha of Bt cotton was reported to be planted in Gujarat alone, with other areas in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka reporting significant areas under illegal Bt cotton too.
The ministry, instead of destroying the illegal crops and compensating farmers for the destruction, allowed the commercialisation of Bt cotton in March 2002.
There have already been news reports about illegal cultivation of Bt brinjal in Haryana.
Roadblock in 2010
In 2005, Mahyco, along with University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, began developing Bt brinjal in India. Once the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee approved the transgenic seeds, Bt brinjal underwent field trials between 2002 and 2006.
However, in 2010, the then environmental minister, Jairam Ramesh, put a moratorium on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal amid public outcry and debate on health and biodiversity issues. This approach is “both responsible to science and responsive to society”, he said in a statement.
The moratorium was driven by several factors – the lack of consensus on Bt technology in the scientific community, the absence of independent biosafety studies, public mistrust and opposition from the 10 major brinjal producing states, mentioned Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in a report. The moratorium would be lifted after satisfactory independent scientific studies had been conducted.
Meanwhile, the Bt brinjal developed by Mayhco faced biopiracy allegations in 2010. The Environment Support Group, a Bengaluru-based trust, accused Mahyco of using brinjal varieties from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu without giving credit or taking permission from the state biodiversity board. The Karnataka Biodiversity Board waited to take any action in the case till 2015 and thereafter passed the case to National Biodiversity Authority.
In 2019, Haryana farmers were reported to be growing Bt brinjal illegally with seeds that were suspected to be trafficked from Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Plant Biotechnology, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, developed a new Bt brinjal seed.
In May, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee approved the new Bt brinjal seed and in September, it approved the field trials of two varieties produced by a lesser-known Jalna-based private firm, Beejsheetal Research Private Ltd. The trials are to be held in seven states with the approval of state agricultural departments between 2020 and 2023.
The new Bt brinjal variety is different from the one released in 2002, as per the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and uses indigenous transgenic varieties of brinjal hybrids Janak and BSS-793. “The new variety has not been brought in the public domain and has been quietly given approval when the country was in lockdown due to the pandemic,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, the national convenor of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture. Details such as the parental gene used should be made public through government notifications, she argued, adding that information regarding the biosafety of the crop that she had sought through the Right to Information was denied – on the basis that it would violate the commercial interests of the parties concerned.
Obsolete in five years
Supporters of the technology like the Alliance for Agriculture Innovation, an agri-tech industry body, sent a letter to the central government along with eight other state governments asking that commercialisation of Bt brinjal be allowed. By controlling fruit and shoot borer with Bt technology, “we can save farmers’ income, reduce pesticide load on the environment and provide pesticide- and insect-free brinjals to consumers”, said Ram Kaundinya, director general of Alliance for Agriculture Innovation, in a press release dated August 6.
However, sustainable agriculture activists point to how fast technology turns obsolete. The pests that feed on cotton and brinjal are monophagous – that is, they eat only one kind of food. This means that they become resistant to the protein that is toxic for them. “The technology has a limit of about five years,” said GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, an independent research organisation in Hyderabad.
This has been the experience with Bt cotton already. The first generation, Bt cotton, Bollgard I was introduced in 2002, and soon after Monsanto launched Bollgard II in 2004, which started to show resistance in 2009 in India to bollworms. In 2015, Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research found that the bollworm had developed resistance to the second-generation BT cotton seeds as well. This technology thus needs to be constantly upgraded, said Cotton Association of India, Maharashtra, in a 2019 report. While India’s cotton acreage and yield increased between 2005 and 2017, Studies indicate that without the use of pesticides and other chemicals, productivity reduced.
However, brinjal does not need the push cotton did. The average world productivity of brinjal, reported by the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, stands at 25 tonnes per hectare. India ranked at 70 in the global cotton productivity list but ranked eighth in brinjal productivity with 17.5 tonnes per hectare.
“The bigger problem that farmers face is of price rather than productivity,” noted Ramanjaneyulu. Bt technology could increase the production of brinjal and create a surplus in the market, leading to a price crash. This will benefit consumers far more than the farmers, noted the National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research.
To avoid unwanted pollination, precautions and regulations have to be observed during field trials and cultivation of Bt crops. The United States Environmental Protection Agency suggests 0.8 km of non-Bt fields around cotton fields. Such regulations could not be implemented in countries like India and China because of the small size of farms.
Even supporters of Bt brinjal agree that the risk of unwanted pollination must be mitigated. “The traits should not be allowed to escape into the environment as was the case with Bt cotton,” said Indra Shekhar Singh, director of policy and outreach at National Seed Association of India, while supporting the field trials of Bt brinjal.
India’s seed policies and laws such as the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act, 2001 give farmers the freedom to sow, save, exchange and sell seeds and give private investors less motivation to introduce open-pollinated seeds in India.
Open-pollinated seeds consistently reproduce with the same characteristics in every generation, whereas the progeny of hybrids do not ensure consistency of characteristics. Therefore, to sustain the characteristics, farmers must buy seeds for each sowing cycle.
Bt cotton was launched as open-pollinated seeds in countries such as the United States and China. While Monsanto could sue farmers in the US for reusing, exchanging or saving the seeds, strong Indian legislations like Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act 2001 did not allow it to do so in India. For the Indian market, it developed hybrid seed varieties, which farmers would have to buy afresh.
Hence, while the new GM technology increased production, it also increased the farmers’ expenditure. The new GM technology seeds are more expensive and have to be bought afresh for every planting season since reusing them reduces their productivity.
The nod from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee is only the first step towards the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal. States have the power to decide whether or not to allow field trials. If they do, state authorities are responsible for submitting a biosafety report and a no-objection certificate to allow commercial farming of GM crops.
State governments would do well to avoid a repeat of the Bt cotton experience.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.