BT BRINJAL: UNNEEDED, UNSAFE AND UNWANTED……
The GM proponents probably thought that Bt brinjal will be easy to bring in – one can always argue that brinjal cultivation uses a lot of chemical pesticides, even if it means showing data from Bangladesh as an “Expert Committee” (ECII) set up by the Indian regulators did and even if state governments like Karnataka point out that “many of these (brinjal varieties) are local varieties, which are hardly sprayed with pesticides because pest management in traditional brinjal varieties is fairly easy……” (in Karnataka government’s letter dated 23/01/2010 (CM/77/GOI/2010) from Mr B S Yediyurappa to Mr Jairam Ramesh). They sought to make Bt brinjal the Trojan Horse through which approvals for various other GM plants in the pipeline can be opened up.
However, due to the scientific rigour exhibited by citizens and civil society groups in the country in taking up independent analyses of the biosafety data of Bt brinjal, in playing a watchdog role over the regulatory processes and constituents, and earlier to that, thanks to an effort to bring out the biosafety data through the Right To Information Act, followed up by the Supreme Court PIL, there was data available right from 2007 that Bt brinjal was unneeded, unsafe and violating farmers’ rights.
In October 2009, the regulators in India (GEAC or Genetic Engineering Approval Committee later re-christened as Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee), based on the report of the Expert Committee II which recommended Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation, gave a regulatory clearance to Bt brinjal in the country (Read here about how ECII was rigged for approval and the Chair of the Committee was unsure of the safety of Bt brinjal!). However, following a huge hue and cry against this decision that erupted all over the country, the then Minister for Environment & Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, decided to hold public consultations on the subject in addition to seeking feedback from state governments, scientists and civil society members. After a vigorous and democratic public debate, the Government of India imposed an indefinite moratorium on the commercial cultivation approval of Bt brinjal on February 9th 2010. (Read here for the feedback provided by various institutions and individuals with their concerns with regard to Bt brinjal as well as its inadequate impact assessment).
Brinjal, also known as eggplant or talong, is a popular vegetable in India. India is the Centre of Origin and Diversity for Brinjal. There is enormous socio-cultural significance attached to this vegetable in addition to Solanum species being used in Indian Systems of Medicine. There are more than 3500 varieties held as accessions by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources as per some reports. Specific varieties like Mattu Gulla have also been registered under the Geographical Indication Act and recognized for ‘genius loci’. In 2006 itself, civil society groups in a loose informal network called Coalition for a GM-Free India approached the then Health Minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss to stop the large scale field trials of Bt brinjal raising many pertinent issues. A detailed letter was submitted to the GEAC too explaining why approval should not be provided. Further, civil society groups set up an Independent Expert Committee to look into various aspects pertaining to Bt brinjal’s biosafety based on the scanty data on which GEAC itself was mulling large scale trials’ approval in 2006. Starting from this report, it was very evident that biosafety testing was inadequate and unscientific.
While the moratorium on Bt brinjal continues, there have been regular attempts by GM proponents and regulators to bypass the public resistance and the valid objections encapsulated in the moratorium decision note of Mr Jairam Ramesh. Six Science Academies of India came together to review biosafety of GM crops and Bt brinjal and were caught red-handed on plagiarism, blatant biases and lack of scientific rigour.
Earlier, the Minister for Science & Technology, Prithviraj Chavan, was caught using industry data and arguments in a letter to the former Union Health Minister, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss. This biased and unscientific stand by Prithviraj Chavan drew sharp criticism from many scientists.
The saga of Bt brinjal continues in the country, even as other crops like Monsanto’s GM maize (read more on herbicide tolerant crops and this GM maize) are advancing inexorably towards our plates through the regulatory pipeline.