‘Spread of the Bt gene could make the brinjal a problematic weed'

An independent enquiry has revealed that the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE, also called genetically modified, or GM) Bt brinjal poses risks to the environment and possibly to human health. The occurrence of wild, weedy and also cultivated relatives presents a likelihood that the GE Bt gene will spread to these relatives but, so far, this has largely been overlooked in the risk assessments for GE Bt brinjal, it says.

Genetically engineered Bt brinjal and the implications for plant biodiversity – revisited, an independent study commissioned by Greenpeace International, finds that brinjal relatives do occur in the regions where cultivation of GE Bt brinjal is proposed, and that GE Bt brinjal may mate with these relatives to spread the GE Bt gene. Spread of the GE Bt gene would have considerable ecological implications, as well as implications for future crop contamination and farmers' rights.

Importantly, the spread of the GE Bt gene could result in the brinjal becoming an aggressive and problematic weed, the Greenpeace report suggests, while impressing upon the governments the need to employ the precautionary principle and not permit any authorisation of the outdoor cultivation of GE Bt brinjal, including field trials

The cultivation of GE Bt brinjal is proposed in some countries across Asia, including India, where there is currently a moratorium on commercialisation, and the Philippines, where field trials are going on. “There are many concerns with GE brinjal, which has been engineered to be resistant to certain insect pests using Bt genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. These concerns include food safety and possible effects on organisms other than the pest insect (non-target organisms), such as beneficial insects and butterflies.”

One of the least known aspects of the GE Bt brinjal is its ability to cross with wild relatives or cultivated varieties. This is because there are no recent reviews in the scientific literature concerning species related to brinjal, and where they grow across Asia. This information is vital when addressing concerns regarding cultivation of GE Bt brinjal, because insect-resistance gives a selective advantage to the plant, increasing its ability to survive and reproduce. If the GE Bt brinjal cross-pollinates wild, weedy or cultivated relatives, the result is a hybrid offspring, which may grow more aggressively and thus become a problem weed, the report says.