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Kerala village ‘panchayat’ for local flavour, not Bt brinjal

Kerala village ‘panchayat’ for local flavour, not Bt brinjal

Kochi: There’s a new player in the fight against Bt brinjal, a village panchayat in Kerala that is seeking to preserve a traditional variety of eggplant.

As part of the plans of the village-level elected legislative body, around 8,000 households in the Mararikulam North gram panchayat in the coastal district of Alappuzha in Kerala will now grow the Marari variety, a slender green brinjal that has long been grown in this part of the world. The project is being bankrolled out of funds from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Bt brinjal is a genetically modified version of an eggplant that is injected with a protein that makes it immune to pests. It is currently awaiting approvals from at least three ministries: environment, agriculture, and health and family welfare.

The Mararikulam North campaign started in March at the screening of a film Poison on the Platter in Kochi, where a team representing the panchayat showcased a variety of organically grown vegetables.

“That was when people outside heard about our brinjal variety and so taking forward the message of the film that deals with the issue of genetically modified food crops, we went in for a campaign," said P. Priyeshkumar, president of the panchayat.

The panchayat collected seeds from farmers in October and tapped funds from the national rural employment guarantee scheme to set up a brinjal nursery to grow at least 100,000 Marari saplings. Around 40,000 saplings were distributed free last week to each family in the village, as well as schools and colleges. The rest are being distributed at a price of Rs2 per sapling to interested farmers.

“In the wake of the threat that genetically modified brinjal poses by making inroads into the farms in the country, we have been over the last few months trying hard to promote cultivation of this variety and ensure that it is conserved," said Priyeshkumar.

The genetic engineering approval committee in the environment ministry has cleared Bt brinjal, but Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh has said he would seek detailed discussions before clearing it. Currently, Bt cotton is the only genetically modified crop that is available commercially in India. “This is the first time that a panchayat, which has been in the forefront of agricultural revolution, has taken such an initiative to protect its biodiversity," said T.M. Thomas Isaac, state finance minister who represents Mararikulam constituency. Some experts think that the panchayat’s efforts are impractical, because an organically grown vegetable couldn’t compete with a genetically modified version.

“Organic plants can’t confer the kind of insect resistance Bt plants can," said P. Ananda Kumar, who heads the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s plant genetics department.

He added that if farmers took to Bt brinjal, market forces would ensure that the Mararikulam variety could be modified to contain the Bt gene. “It would be then impossible to differentiate between them."

Isaac added that while the state government was promoting biotechnology research, it would not allow any technology that “threatens the safety and health of the people and environment, if it destroys the biodiversity on which our villages (are) sustain(ed)".

“Unlike Bt cotton, here is a case of an item for human consumption with controversies still raging on its ill effects on health."

Jacob Koshy in New Delhi contributed to this story.

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