The Narendra Modi Government must put an end to the ordeal of Bt Brinjal cultivators and consumers with a decisive verdict in favour of science
With news circulating that India has sought Bangaldesh’s opinion on Bt Brinjal, that farmers over there have been growing since 2013, the debate on Genetically Modified (GM) crops has come alive. Over 50,000 Bangladeshi farmers have been growing this variety of brinjal for five years now, and apparently, all is well, unlike what was said about Bt Brinjal in India in 2010, just when it was about to be allowed for commercial cultivation. Politics and myopic vision prevailed over science and acumen of our scientists. Activists, adamant at derailing the march of scientific spirit, also had their way.
In 2010, under pressure from activists and NGOs, the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had ordered an indefinite moratorium on commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal. This even after scientific communities, including Ministry of Environment & Forests’ high-powered body Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had approved of it after analysing rigorous scientific studies over a long period of time.
One of India’s big seed companies Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) and two agriculture universities — University of Agricultural Science (Dharwad) and Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (Coimbotore) — had signed an agreement in 2005 to develop Bt Brinjal. This was necessitated after scientists considered it appropriate to bring the benefits of advances in science to the farmers by developing a higher variety of Brinjal seeds. According to a paper by Bhagirath Choudhary and Kadambini Gaur of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), over 1.4 million small and marginal India farmers produce an estimated of one quarter or about nine million tonnes of Brinjal on 55,000 hectares of the total global production of 32 million tonnes. Brinjal is an important vegetable for vast majority of ordinary people in India and is ranked among the second most consumed vegetable after potato.
Brinjal is also among the most vulnerable crops and is prone to massive attacks from pests and insects which in turn affect farmers’ incomes. Fruit and shoot borer (FSB) is the most prominent disease and causes losses of upto 70 per cent in commercial plantings. This also leads to indiscriminate use of pesticides. “Farmers usually spray twice a week, applying 15 to 40 insecticide sprays, or more, in one season depending on infestation levels. The decision of farmers to spray is influenced more by subjective assessment of visual presence of FSB rather than guided by the more objective science-based methodology of economic threshold levels. This reliance on subjective assessment of visual presence leads to gross over-spraying with insecticides, higher insecticide residues, and unnecessary increase in farmers’ exposure to insecticides. For example, for the more productive hybrid brinjal plantings, 54 litres of formulated insecticide per hectare is sprayed, compared with a requirement of only 16 litres when economic thresholds are used to trigger spraying,” said Choudhary. This leaves the Brinjal with a large amount of pesticides residues, a serious concern for the consumers, even as they have to contend with an inferior quality of Brinjals infested with larvae of FSB.
In this backdrop, it was important that science intervened to address this severe challenge. Mahyco developed Bt Brinjal which underwent a rigorous science-based regulatory approval process. Research trials confirmed that insecticide requirement for Bt Brinjal hybrids was on average 80 per cent less than for the non-Bt counterpart for the control of FSB. “As a result of the effective control of FSB, Bt Brinjal’s average marketable yield increased by 100 per cent over its non-Bt counterpart hybrids, 116 per cent over popular conventional hybrids and 166 per cent over popular open- pollinated varieties (OPVs) of brinjal,” reported Choudhary. This was a big boon for farmers as other than providing an effective control for FSB, Bt Brinjal ensured about 80 per cent less use of pesticides, and more than double the yield for farmers, thereby significantly enhancing farmers earnings. It was a win-win for farmers and consumers.
The first expert committee in 2006, while concluding that Bt Brinjal was safe, suggested large-scale trials to reaffirm the findings of the scientific studies. In 2009, a second expert committee examined data from these trials and concluded that adequate safety tests had been performed, stating that “the benefits of Bt Brinjal event EE-I developed by M/s Mahyco far outweigh the perceived and projected risks”, and advised the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to recommend commercialisation of the Bt Brinjal. The GEAC cleared Bt Brinjal for commercialisation on October 14, 2009.
However, Ramesh chose to ignore science and in February 2010 announced, rather diplomatically, that “until we arrive at a political, scientific and societal consensus, this moratorium will remain”. That consensus still eludes us, thereby ensuring that Indian consumers continue to eat inordinate amount of pesticides and our poor farmers endure the ravage of pests and diseases. Farmers remained poor and those who cried foul also remained silent. Time has come for the Narendra Modi Government to end this ordeal with a decisive verdict in favour of science. Politics and myopia be damned.
(The writer is a strategic communications professional)