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Bt Brinjal: fears, myths and facts

The University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UASD), has developed several technologies for the benefit of farmers. The Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology (IABT), a multi-crore facility in the university, in collaboration with the Central Institute for Cotton Research (of ICAR), Nagpur, has successfully introduced a Bt gene into two Indian cotton varieties (unlike Bt hybrids developed by private companies). It has got the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercial cultivation with a view to controlling bollworms. UASD found in Bt brinjal an opportunity to serve the resource-poor farmers by devising a product that would proficiently help control the dreaded pest of brinjal — the shoot and fruit borer.

Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt), a common bacteria occurring in soil, has been used as a biopesticide sprays on various crops to control lepidopteron pests since 1960s in India. This bacterium produces a protein toxic to Lepidopteron insect pests which are a major concern in most of agriculture and horticulture crops. A number of crystalline (Cry) toxin-protein genes or Bt genes isolated from this bacteria are transferred into many crops globally and those introductions have helped in substantial economic, environmental, and social welfare benefits in as many as 25 countries.

In India, since the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002, a dramatic increase in area under cotton has been witnessed. The area under Bt cotton increased quietly with the initiative of farmers looking to its environmental safety, productivity and profitability. Farmers have been playing a key role in promoting the spread of useful and beneficial varieties whether the governments have recommended it or not. Useful varieties will find their entry into the field one way or the other, and will not await decision by any government. Hundreds and thousands of useful and beneficial varieties have been identified and adopted by farmers themselves even before the science of genetics and plant breeding was born! That is the reason the government of India has enacted an Act in 2002 to protect the rights of farmers which is unique to the Indian Seed Act.

Our country has very stringent rules and regulations governing every step of the application of biotechnology/genetic engineering in any segment, agriculture, medicine and environment. At every institutional level, an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSC) headed by the Vice-Chancellor oversees the safety needs of the research. Further, there are committees at the district, State and Central levels, including the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and the GEAC, all of which are statutory bodies. It is reported that Bt brinjal research in the last eight years has gone through all these steps. As per reports, whole biosafety data, various comments and their scientific validation related to Bt brinjal, in particular, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), in general, have been meticulously addressed in the EC-II report and made available in the website of the ministry of environment and forests.

Brinjal which is popular among small and resource-constrained farmers is prone to insect pests and diseases, the most serious and destructive of them being the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) Leucinodes orbonalis Guen. FSB larvae bore into tender shoots and fruits, causing damage up to 70 per cent. Sprays to control FSB in Karnataka range from 25-35 in plains and 16-20 in coastal belt. Besides the high cost of cultivation and adverse effects on the environment, high pesticide residues in brinjal pose serious risk to consumer's health and safety. UASD developed six Bt brinjal varieties that are popular in northern Karnataka, southern Maharashtra and Goa (Manjari Gota, Udupi Gulla, Malapur local (S), Kudachi local, Rabkavi local and Go-112). All the six varieties have been field tested at five locations for their agronomic performance, the assessment of effectiveness of Bt gene in controlling the fruit and shoot borer and the effect of Bt gene on non-target and beneficial insects besides soil nematodes and soil microorganisms. The technology is effective in managing the target pest and providing safety to the rest of the non-target insects, soil microorganisms, earthworms, and nematodes. Expression of the Cry1Ac protein has been reported to be adequate in shoot, stem, flowers and fruits throughout the crop period.

— It is reported that, besides the prescribed tests, a number of additional studies recommended by two expert committees (EC I and EC II) were carried out on Bt brinjal and all related doubts/concerns expressed by people not only from India, but also from several other countries were meticulously considered and addressed by the GEAC and its expert committees.

— The gene responsible for Cry1Ac protein expressed in Bt-brinjal is the same as that in Bt-cotton. This is being cultivated in India since 2002 and it has not caused any scientifically proven adverse effect on humans, animals or the environment but has brought significant benefits by way of increased yield and profit to farmers and decreased use of insecticides. Bt-brinjal will also benefit farmers in the same way and will benefit more of the small holders. Unlike chemical insecticides, Bt proteins cannot bioaccumulate. In fact, Bt proteins are naturally produced by soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis which live in soil. The Bt protein is decomposed as any other proteins in the soil and in human/animal guts.

— Bt toxin protein does not work in acidic digestive canals of higher animals and humans, but works only in the Lepidopteron insects which have alkaline pH in their mid-guts. Moreover, there are no receptors for the Bt toxin in animal or human guts.


I have personally interacted with many farmers and other leaders across the country on this subject. The following doubts prevailing in the minds of some sections of society due to misinformation or whatever reason need to be cleared for accepting Bt brinjal for commercialisation. It has to be emphasised that we cannot afford to neglect the application of biotechnology in agriculture to meet the needs of the burgeoning population.

GM crops have terminator gene: This is not true. It is still in a concept stage.

Bt brinjal seeds can be produced and sold only by multinational companies: This is also not true. Farmers can be trained to produce their own seeds of Bt brinjal varieties. Only in respect of specific hybrids one may have to go to multinational companies. Public organisations are researching now and soon come out with their hybrids and private companies will have no role on seeds of such hybrids.

The traditional varieties will be contaminated and biodiversity disturbed: This is also not true as explained above in this article. Several varieties have been existing and the new Bt brinjal varieties will be added as acessions to the existing germplasm.

Testing is inadequate: If this is the reason, a focussed scientific effort needs to be made on fast track to take up tests with a definite time-frame and concluded instead of simply saying wait for five or 10 years. A competent committee should decide this. Delaying their release for reasons which are not scientific is denying the farmer the benefit of advanced technology.

The soil gets contaminated and quality goes down: There is no scientific basis to believe this. Bt is already present in the soil.

Can we live without modern agriculture? Can we feed billions of people without an efficient agriculture? At this crucial juncture where we need to produce more food to feed the growing population and to bring welfare to farmers by making farming a profitable venture, biotechnology holds that hope. Should there be some more tests? Yes, that needs to be done on fast track. If the doubts are cleared about the adequacy of testing, Bt brinjal needs to be encouraged without any delay for the good of State's agriculture and for the benefit of resource poor farmers around the country. Farmers are to be trained for seed production of Bt brinjal varieties so that the seed does not become the monopoly of multinational companies.

( The writer is former Vice Chancellor, USAD, and Director, JSS Rural Development Foundation, Mysore, Member, Krishi Mission, Government of Karnataka.)

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 8:48:47 PM |

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