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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Brinjal, cotton, alfalfa and Genetic modifications

What has kuthirai masal (alfalfa) to do with :- Malpur , Manjari gota, Kudachi, Udupi 112 GO, and Pabkavi which   are some of the varieties of………………… The debate as to whether it was scientific research for betterment of agriculture or was it favouring a MNC at the cost of Indian farmer raged on…………

About a year back – Bacillus Thuringiensis was daily news – so also was Monsanto.  If you have forgotten, Bacillus Thuringiensis Brinjal, popularly known as Bt brinjal, was at the centre of controversy in India.  The egg plant, aubergine, melongene, brinjal or guinea squash is plant of the family Solanaceae.  Brinjal’s scientific name is solanum melongena.

Technically, Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is a Gram-positive, soil-dwelling bacterium, commonly used as a biological alternative to a pesticide; alternatively, the Cry toxin may be extracted and used as a pesticide. Through genetic engineering, scientists  introduced the gene responsible for making the toxin into a range of crops, including cotton.  The term BT expressed  the qualities of the insecticidal gene throughout the growing cycle of the plant.   Just like Bt cotton, Bt brinjal is a suite of transgenic brinjals (eggplant or aubergine) created by inserting a crystal gene (Cry1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the genome of various brinjal cultivars. The insertion of the gene, along with other genetic elements  would give resistance against lepidopteron insects, in particular the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer

Cotton crops are  susceptible to pest attacks and use up more than 10 per cent of the world's pesticides; intense chemical use led to rise in pest infestation and slowly they became resistant to insecticides.  There was abject poverty amongst cotton farmers and this was touted as the solution to bring in viability and help them in cost control.   You can expect the welfare measure from Govt. or NGO but to expect the same from a Commercial company is ………………..

Monsanto is a US based multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation.  It is leading producer of herbicide glyphosate as also genetically engineered seed.    In olden days, the farmer would keep a part of his produce as seed for the next crop.  This was fraught with problems of storage and maintaining class.  Obviously every one would like to improve the yield and get more out of the crops.  Monsanto claims that its only business is agriculture and does research to create the best seeds for the farmers.  It supplies – alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, sorghum, soyabeans, sugarbeets and wheat.  It spread its shop on the traditional farmers of India.

One can never be sure of the ways of Indian’s politicians and their support.  As has been an Expert committee was set up to examine the biosafety data of Mahyco.  The committee concluded that the data demonstrated that BT brinjal was safe and equivalent to its non BT counterpart and recommended large scale trails be allowed.  The Second Expect Committee in 2009 concluded that adequate safety tests had been performed and that the benefits of Bt brinjal developed by Mahyco far outweighed the perceived and projected risks.  But the Central Govt Ministers contradicted each other. For  Agri Minister Sharad Pawar, the committee’s decision was final but Environ Minister Jairam Ramesh stated that Genetic Engg. Approval committee may well be a statutory body but when crucial issues of human safety are concerned, the Govt should take the final decision. 

There were concerns and at many places Scientists, Farmers and others opposed introduction of Bt bringal though most of them were as or more confused than what the common man was.  As has occurred with many others, when there is opposition, the Govt. would dilute.  GOI officially announced in Feb 2010 that it needed more time needed and there was no overriding urgency to introduce Bt bringal.  The Centre also clarified that is was a moratorium and not a permanent ban.  Going by this, Companies with any seeds of Bt brinjal had to register the details with the government and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) was made responsible for storage of all the Bt brinjal seeds in India.

There were shrill cries that the developers of Bt brinjal has violated India's biodiversity law. It had been developed by Mahyco - US MNC Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake - in collaboration with Sathguru, a front company of the US Agency for International Development, Cornell University and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad. It was alleged that  six local varieties - Malpur local, Manjari gota, Kudachi local, Udupi local, 112 GO, and Pabkavi local - were used for inserting into Bt genes.

There were reports that raw research data on toxicity studies done by Mahyco in rats fed on Bt brinjal for up to 90 days was analyzed by an independent expert  who found that rats fed with Bt brinjal experienced " organ and system damage and had ovaries at half their normal weight, enlarged spleens with white blood cell counts at 35 to 40 per cent higher than normal with elevated eosinophils, indicating immune function changes". The report concluded that release of Bt brinjal for human consumption cannot be recommended given the current evidence of toxicity to rats in just 90 days.

Earlier there were reports of disclosure by Monsanto that  cotton pest--pink bollworm--has developed resistance to its much-touted Bt cotton variety-  Bollgard I, in Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot districts in Gujarat.

As against this, recently, a leading Indian biochemist urged the environment and forests ministry to lift the moratorium on Bt brinjal claiming that it was affecting India’s own scientists more as they are ready with more than a dozen GM crops including vitamin A rich golden rice.  He said that opportunity to  improve nutritive quality of foodgrains was frittered away as the activists ruled the roost.  His contention is that
'When a biotechnology revolution can offer technologies to improve agriculture and food security in free India, it is dithering and procrastinating to the point of self-defeat,  His argument was that  the Bt gene was not toxic to humans, animals or the environment. Millions of people in different parts of the world, including the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and China, were consuming Bt corn over several years without any authenticated reports of a mishap.

As usual arguments and counter arguments and commoners would either be disinterested or be confused on whom and what to believe ???

Alfalfa (kuthirai masal in tamil) is a flowering plant in the pea family Fabaceae cultivated as an important forage crop. In the UK, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, it is also known as lucerne, and as lucerne grass in south Asia. It resembles clover, with clusters of small purple flowers.  It is  extensively grown everywhere as food for cattle and  harvested as hay.

Now there are reports (Feb 2011) that contamination from GM alfalfa is certain.    Despite US Dept. of Agriculture assurances, agriculture experts state that contamination of organic and traditional crops by recently deregulated, genetically modified alfalfa is inevitable. 

There have been pleas to approve the use of genetically modified alfalfa claiming that the Monsanto developed seeds would resist the weedkiller and would save time and labour on weeding, to which protagonists had been stating that widespread planting of GM alfalfa will result in pollen from those plants contaminating organic and traditional crops, destroying their value.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision late last month to deregulate genetically modified alfalfa was the latest step in a long court fight over its use.   Earlier its planting had been barred by Federal court.  The Agriculture Secretary had spoken of steps to ensure that genetically modified alfalfa wouldn't cross-pollinate with organic and unmodified crops. He had also proposed research to improve detection of modified genes in alfalfa and hay and  promised $1 million for research on the flow of pollen to better determine how big buffer zones between modified and unmodified fields must be to prevent contamination.

It is being countered by Agricultural Experts that some degree of cross pollination will occur regardless of mechanism that would be in place.  They fear that there are many avenues for contamination to happen and has to be managed extremely carefully.  What needs to be done with things that concerns humans is known to everybody……….

Regards – S. Sampathkumar.

1 comment:

  1. kathirikkai, kathirrikkai, gundu kathirikkai; interesting - Prabhu