Why are farmers compelled to use illegal herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton or unapproved Bt brinjal seeds? Vivian Fernandes reports.
It is just a baingan, one of many vegetables that we eat but not a staple like dal, something we cannot do without. So why are activists making such a fuss for the past three weeks about a variety they found Jeevan Saini growing in his farm in Fatehabad in Haryana? The Environment Protection Act has been invoked, samples have been collected and tested and scares have been spread about genetic contamination, adverse impact on biodiversity and threat to human health. A few newspapers have been reporting the developments regularly; it was front page news in the Times of India, which has now told the government in an editorial to shed its ‘Luddite’ approach to GM crops.
A baingan or brinjal with a foreign (cry1Ac) gene toxic to the fruit and shoot borer is no different from a conventional brinjal, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had said after two levels of bio-safety research level trials running into a few years. The gene was extracted from a commonly-occurring soil-bacterium, Bt for short. At its meeting in October 2009, it recommended the Bt brinjal for mass cultivation finding it to be safe for humans and animals. But for political reasons, Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, put the decision on hold. In February 2010 he announced an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco). The company is a pioneer in introducing GM crop technology to India. In 2002, its joint venture with the American MNC, Monsanto, had got approval for borer-resistant Bt cotton, which now covers more than 90 percent of India’s cotton area.
Finding itself thwarted in India, Mahyco gave the technology and India’s bio-safety data to Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI). BARI introgressed the gene in four of its brinjal varieties and gave them to 20 farmers in 2013. In 2017, more than 20,000 Bangladeshi farmers were growing it. No harm to human health has been reported there.
In September 2018, the GEAC took up Mahyco’s re-activated application for cultivation of Bt brinjal in India. GEAC requested the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bengaluru, to study the post-release impact of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh and report the findings.
Believing that with a change of government and of environment minister Bt brinjal could be approved, the activists who are vehemently opposed to GM crops for ideological reasons, have stirred into action. They took brinjal samples from Saini’s farm and found that it indeed contained the cry1Ac gene. Saini gave the improbable story that he bought 15,000 seedlings from an unknown person at a bus stop for Rs 8 each.
Tests conducted by the National Bureau for Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) at the instance of the Haryana government have found that while the Fatehabad brinjal sample has been genetically modified, it does not contain Mahyco’s cry1Ac transgene. This was confirmed by sources in NBPGR, ICAR and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). Haryana’s Director-General for Horticulture, Arjun Singh Saini confirmed that the report had ruled out cry1Ac but it did not say which transgene the sample contained. The Fatehabad Deputy Commissioner, Dhirendra Khadgata, to whom the report has been given asked to be contacted on 15 May, when he was called on 13 May, as he said he was busy with election duty till dawn that day.
If Mahyco’s transgene had been found activists would have gone to town demanding penal action against the company for violating the Environment Protection Act. (Though the seeds could also have been smuggled from Bangladesh and not leaked by Mahyco). The GEAC would have been constrained to deny it permission to commercialise the crop. Mahyco has 680 kg of Bt brinjal seed left over from the trials. This can cover 3,000 acres. The seed is kept securely at its germplasm bank in Jalna.
The Bt brinjal seed stock was supposed to have been kept at NBPGR but the institute demanded a hefty initial amount for setting up a storage facility and stiff annual fees for operation and maintenance, including round-the-clock security. A tripartite agreement was to be signed between ICAR, the environment ministry and Mahyco but the draft was not finalised.
If the source of the Bt brinjal gene is not Mahyco, then who can it be? ICAR’s National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB) is the other Bt brinjal developer, whose transgene ─ cry1Fa1─ has been approved for trials. In April 2014, GEAC permitted Coimbatore-based Rasi Seeds to conduct trials at its research facility to select the most effective event that expressed cry1Fa1 out of 10 events.
The nucleus of a plant cell has the same set of chromosomes. A transgene can be located on any of those chromosomes. Each specific location is called an event. Mahyco’s Bt brinjal event is called EE-1.
At its July 2014 meeting, GEAC permitted Bejo Sheetal of Jalna (now Beej Sheetal), a producer and seller of vegetable seeds, to conduct bio-safety research level (BRL) II tests on two of its brinjal hybrids containing the cry1Fa1 gene (Event 142) at seven locations in India, after being satisfied with BRL-1 trials conducted at three of its research farms. Later it was allowed to conduct the trials at IARI in New Delhi.
In August 2016, GEAC permitted Aurangabad-based Global Transgenes to conduct trials on Bt brinjal to select the best events that expressed the cry1Fa1 and cry2Ao genes. The companies did not report the progress of the trials to GEAC till its last meeting, which was held in March.
Our sources declined to say whether the Bt brinjal samples tested had found the presence of the above two transgenes. This story will be updated when we get that information.
Plants in the course of evolution develop varieties with resistance traits to particular pests and diseases. But there is no brinjal variety with naturally-occurring resistance to the fruit and shoot border. Farmers virtually douse the plant with pesticides to kill the stubborn pest. Hence the need to graft genes from outside the brinjal species to make it toxic to the borer). The Bt gene does not affect humans as they do not have receptors to which the Bt gene can latch on to. Also, unlike the borer gut, which is alkaline, the human gut is acidic).
A Haryana farmer leader, Thakur Guniprakash, who visited Fatehabad said illegal Bt brinjal is grown by many farmers there. Brinjal farmers want relief from high pesticide costs, he said. Farmers should be given freedom to access technology, and if governments did not permit even those considered safe after extensive tests to please their political constituencies, farmers would have no recourse but to defy unjust decisions. Farmers’ organisations, he said, will hold protests after the elections in favour of Bt brinjal and GM crop technology.
It is important for GEAC and the government to act quickly and provide farmers with approved version of Bt brinjal. The government does not seem to realise that farmers want cost-saving technology. Cotton farmers are extensively growing herbicide-tolerant and borer-resistant Bt cotton because of the high cost of manual weeding. They are growing illegal hybrids in the absence of a legitimate version, which Mahyco could have provided, if it had not withdrawn its application from GEAC in 2016 fearing its patent rights would not be protected.
If Bt brinjal is commercially released, it will pave the way for others. A team of Delhi University scientists have developed a technology to make high-yielding mustard hybrids efficiency using GM technology. (This is the version which GEAC approved in 2017). The Hyderabad-based Icrisat has used the technology to develop aflatoxin resistance in groundnuts. Assam Agricultural University has develop GM pigeon pea or tur which is resistant to borers.
(Brinjal affected by the fruit and shoot borer (left) and Bt brinjal (right). These are of Bangladesh, not Haryana)