Is BT Brinjal a mistake?
Sharada Balasubramanian , Probir K Sarker

With the awareness levels rising about GMs and the need for organic farming rising sharply, there are fewer chances that BT Brinjal will be accepted for consumption

  • It is feared that the genetically modified brinjal might turn out to be another ‘BT Cotton’ case in India, which would add to the woes of farmers  
    Photo- Syed Zakir Hossain

You might be sitting across your dining table, savouring a dish of Brinjal, but how would you know where your Brinjals are coming from? Since BT Brinjal, the genetically modified seeds from Monsanto, have been given the go-ahead in Bangladesh, you might probably think twice before you buy the bright purple Brinjal, unless of course they come with a label of GM (genetically modified).

In India, amidst various protests, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh declared an indefinite moratorium on introducing BT Brinjals in 2009. The move came despite a go-ahead from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). 

Declaring the ban also came along with a thought: when there is not enough support to prove the long term impact of BT Brinjal, how can we introduce it?

Case in point

Data from Monsanto, the producers of BT Brinjal, reveal that the pollen of brinjal can travel upto 30 metres. Typically, if we take the case of India, 84% of the farmers are small land holders with less than 4 hectares of land. Among these farmers, those who cultivate Brinjal do it in plots measuring less than an acre. This is done to leave 30 metres around the plot to prevent contamination of a field by BT Brinjal from an adjoining plot. Where is the space left to cultivate in such a condition?

Both India and Bangladesh not just produce huge quantities of Brinjal, but also consume and export it. India has no liability laws to protect the interest of organic farmers. These are the farmers whose farms could be contaminated by GM crops from the neighbouring farm. Would it be worth risking the production without knowing of its consequences?

Even though the release of BT Brinjal was approved, here are a few things the government should keep in mind.

First, how are we sure that BT Brinjal that is introduced will not have long-term health and environmental implications? What are the tests that have been undertaken to ensure that BT Brinjal is actually safe? Can we take this risk when livelihood is linked to food production and when our country is one of the largest producers of Brinjal? Will it solve the economic problem of developing nations like Bangladesh? If yes, at what cost? Are we aware of these? Will it affect the agricultural biodiversity?

There are a plethora of questions that need to be addressed before any GM crop is introduced.

A Bangladesh High Court bench on September 29 had barred the introduction of four varieties of BT Brinjal upon a writ petition. In the ruling, the court asked the government to explain why taking initiative without assessment should not be declared illegal.

The court ordered Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), agriculture secretary and health secretary to submit a progress report by three months after conducting an independent research focusing on the health safety issues in line with the GM food standard set by Codex Alimentarius Commission, an organisation founded by the FAO and the WHO.

The government finally approved the release of BT Brinjal in the country amid criticism from conservationists on October 30, Wednesday.

Earlier on September 23, another High Court bench rejected two petitions that challenged the government move.

BARI claimed that the BT varieties would reduce the use of pesticides remarkably as they are resistant to the most common brinjal pest.

However, environmental activists expressed their concern that it would affect biodiversity and also cause severe health hazards to humans, animals and plants. It could have devastating impacts on indigenous brinjal and other crop varieties through pollination.

BARI developed the BT brinjal varieties after seven years of experiments since 2006 with the technical support of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) in which the American seed giant Monsanto has 26% stake. Mahyco’s brinjal varieties, developed with the financial support of USAID, were banned in India in 2010 after their harmful effects were exposed.

Lesson learned: BT Cotton

In Andhra Pradesh, a southern state of India, BT Cotton was cultivated for the first time in 2002. Tall claims and promises were made. One, the seeds will protect the plants from bollworm, a common pest that attacks the crop. Much against what BT Cotton claimed the seeds failed to protect the plants from bollworm attack. Many farmers committed suicide with the crop failure. The problem did not just end there.

The farmers were not told that they would have to purchase the terminator seeds every year. The farmers usually save their seeds for the next harvest. The need to buy seeds every year added to their mounting debts. The farmers were unaware of the fact that twice the amount of water would be needed for cultivation as opposed to conventional crop cultivation. Were the farmers informed about these issues before BT Cotton was introduced? Was there awareness or open sharing of knowledge and resources?

If BT Brinjal is introduced in Bangladesh, the above factors should be considered as practical posers. What could be the possible aftermath of cultivating BT Brinjal?

Also, the livelihood implications of adopting GM technologies are still not fully understood. Then how can BT Brinjal be introduced in Bangladesh?

Do we have a choice?

The questions relating to product labelling has been widely discussed and implemented in the European nations. This is a crucial point to consider. Will Bangladesh label the GM products? Also, was a public survey conducted to find out if the consumers are at all aware of the GMs; and if they are aware, would they consume it?

In India, GreenPeace, an environmental NGO, conducted a public engagement campaign, asking people on the streets if they were aware of the GM and its consequences on human health. These survey results were revealed in public and given to the authorities.

If you think only developed nations are strong on the GM bans, you are wrong. Africa has a strong ban on import of GM products on the grounds of human health and environmental issues. Report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reveal that Ethiopia is banning the import of GM food, saying it would undermine farmers who already have their own traditional ways of fighting pests and weeds.

Zambia banned the import of all GMs, citing concerns over biological and health hazards.

On an average, it costs Bangladeshi farmers $300/ha to produce hybrid non-BT Brinjal. Of that, 60% is spent on crop protection (based on a field assessment and estimates prepared by BARI consultants). With growing BT Brinjal, it is possible to reduce the costs of small and marginal farmers by 25-80%, largely due to the reduction in pesticides spray.

However, when it comes to BT Brinjal, some scientists say that Fruit Shoot Borers (FSBs), which are the worst crop raiders, can only be treated with BT Brinjal. However, it is unclear if tests prove what the long-term impact of BT Brinjal on human health and environment may be. Also, would BT Brinjal be successful in combating FSBs in the long-run? If not, what would be the state of farmers, whose livelihood depends on farm production? They would still have to spray pesticides and insecticides, despite using BT Brinjal, which was precisely what happened in the case of BT Cotton.

Global policies and solutions

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is an international treaty governing the movements of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology from one country to another. This protocol entered into force on September 11, 2003.

It gives importing countries the right to take into account socioeconomic concerns (provided their actions are “consistent with their international obligations”). Such concerns could include the risk that imports of genetically engineered foods may replace traditional crops, undermine local cultures and traditions or reduce the value of biodiversity to indigenous communities.

According to Article 23, on public awareness and participation, the protocol says: “The Parties shall – Promote and facilitate public awareness, education and participation concerning the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms in relation to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. In doing so, the Parties shall cooperate, as appropriate, with other States and international bodies.”

The Protocol further states: “The Parties shall, in accordance with their respective laws and regulations, consult the public in the decision-making process regarding living modified organisms.”

Both India and Bangladesh are signatories to this protocol and have ratified it.

Subsequent to this, the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol came in. It deals with liability and redress on damage resulting from LMOs. In 2012, India’s Environment Minister Jayanthi Natrajan said India would become a party to this protocol. The Bangladesh government has also been taking steps for signing the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress.

With the Cartagena Protocol, there is a Biosafety Clearing-House to facilitate the exchange of information on living modified organisms and to assist countries in the implementation of the Protocol. This clearing house will play a crucial role in administering the entry of GMs into the country.

In Africa, the African Biosafety Model Law provides a holistic and comprehensive set of biosafety rules including issues that are not dealt with by the Biosafety Protocol. These include mandatory labelling and identification or traceability requirements for GMs and GM food, and liability and redress for harm caused by GMs to human health and the environment, and for resultant economic loss.

According to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Biosafety Guidelines of Bangladesh has been gazetted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) in 2008. Earlier, National Biosafety Framework (NBF) was developed in 2007. Biosafety Rules of Bangladesh has been drafted under the purview of the Environment Conservation Act 1995.

According to the Second Regular National Report on the Implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2011, Bangladesh pointed out that there was a mechanism in place to consult public about the decision-making process over the GM products. This response came through via the list of questionnaires that have been put forth by the Biosafety panel. In response to another question raised on whether Bangladesh has taken any initiative to inform its public about the means of public access to the Biosafety Clearing-House, the answer was a clear no.

Now, with the BT Brinjal introduction, and being a party to the Cartagena Protocol, it is important that measures of testing BT Brinjals, results and public opinion be considered.

Also, the BT trials in Bangladesh were to be done in confinement, according to the standard procedures by the National Bio-Safety Committee. BARI did admit that the test was done in confinement. However, media reports suggest that they did not give any description of the procedures. Also, during visits to the field where BT Brinjal experimentation was done at BARI, it was found that the area was surrounded by mesh net, keeping the top open.

French scientist Dr Gilles Eric Seralini, who was commissioned by Green Peace, found through research that Bt Brinjal produces “proteins that induce antibiotic resistance which is a major health problem; BT Brinjal contains 16-17 mg/kg BT insecticide toxin, which is harmful for health; Lactating cows gained weight making them take more roughage; Bilirubin content increased indicating liver damage; and rats fed with BT Brinjal had diarrhoea, increased water consumption and decreased liver weight.”

This scientific result is crucial to consider.

The director general of BARI, Dr Rafiqul Islam Mondol, claimed that no harmful effects of BT Brinjal were found on mammals in their laboratory tests. But, reports suggest that no BARI findings are available regarding the name of the laboratory(s), research methodology and the parameters on which the researches were conducted. Are we abiding the Cartagena Protocol?

Organic brinjal?

Though BT Brinjal is claimed to be effective to combat FSBs, it is believed that there are several alternatives for crop management – such as integrated pest management, use of biopesticides and organic agriculture. In the State of Andhra Pradesh alone, there are 2m acres under organic agricultural cultivation.

It has been often argued that GM food is the only way to meet the food requirements in the future, considering increase in crop production and lesser investment in insecticides. However, with the prevention of food loss during storage and transit, increased care of soil fertility, the use of indigenously-developed technologies (including organic agriculture) and other steps to increase productivity, there is capacity to feed twice as many people without using GM technology, in India. With the awareness levels rising about GMs and the need for organic farming rising sharply, there are fewer chances that BT Brinjal will be accepted for consumption.

Also, being an exporter of brinjals, when international countries would demand labelling of these products or want a non-GM product, the exports will suffer, affecting the farmers and the economy.

Let us also not forget that India and the Philippines have issued moratoriums on BT Brinjal after taking into account the negative effects on health, environment and socio-economic condition of their people.  

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Sharada Balasubramanian

Sharada Balasubramanian is a freelance journalist from Tamil Nadu ([email protected]

Probir K Sarker

 Probir K Sarker is senior staff sub-editor of Dhaka Tribune

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