Brinjals, or aubergines or eggplant, as they are variously called in different parts of the world, are the center of a major brouhaha over biotech crops and their introduction in India, one of the most lucrative markets for seeds in the world.
Bowing to the pressure of numerous activists and at least 10 state governments, the Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh has declared a moratorium on the introduction of the Bt Brinjal into the Indian agroproduct market.
Despite the concerns of the growing biotech industry in India, this moratorium is backed by no less a personage than Dr. M.Swaminatha one of the founding fathers of the 'Green Revolution' in India that did away with dependency on food imports. From The Hindu:
"Agriculture scientist and Rajya Sabha member M.S. Swaminathan on Tuesday described the government’s moratorium on commercialisation of Mahyco’s Bt brinjal until independent studies established its safety, as “a wise and appropriate decision.”
He said it was appropriate not to hurry and to look at the problems to the satisfaction of all. The government should utilise the time to put in place a credible, effective and transparent system for the benefit of the country and conduct tests in a manner that had public trust".
Other voices had been earlier raised in protest against what was termed 'inadequate research' of the effects of Bt Brinjal consumption in animal models, prominent among them scientist Gilles-Eric Selarini.
From the concluding lines in his report:
"This Bt brinjal release in the environment includes major risks. It is not serious to give to billions of people and animals for their entire life a food / feed that has not been tested more than 3 months with blood analyses. We do not know the long term consequences of the genetic modification itself nor the effects of the modified insecticide toxin produced at very high levels. Moreover there were clear signs of hepatorenal toxicities, among other effects, shown within 90 days by significant differences in Mahyco's toxicological subchronic tests in mammals: goats, rats and rabbits. These are not clear proofs because the tests are too short, but preoccupying enough to forbid Bt brinjal release at this stage."
While it's heartening that the Indian government is responsive enough to these concerns prior to full-blown introduction of the crop into the Indian ecosystem, it may have already made its way into existing varieties through improper isolation techniques for the test farms.
If the experience with Bt cotton is any indicator, this may be a case of a genie that has already escaped the bottle.
"When proper refugia standards are not followed, contamination can result from the cross-flow of pollen between Bt and non-Bt varieties. The result may be new genetic combinations that fail to express the Bt toxin enough for adequate protection from the bollworm.
Preliminary analysis by CICR in Nagpur, which has monitored resistance to the Bt toxin for the past five years, shows that one in every 667 bollworms in north India, one in every 440 in central India and one in every 400 in south India is resistant to Bt toxin." (emphases mine)
It will take a DNA battle of sorts between the existing varieties to determine the genetic victor of all the crosspollination and insect resistance evolution patterns. The results may not be anything we can predict.