Home >Opinion >Bt brinjal revisited

Monday was the fifth anniversary of the imposition of a moratorium on the commercialization of genetically modified brinjal by the ministry of environment and forests, a decision that continues to attract both bouquets and brickbats. This was the very first transgenic food crop sought to be sold in the market, the earlier transgenic being genetically modified cotton. Transgenic crops are those which have genes from some other source introduced into them for generating some positive impacts. The genetic modification in both cases involve the insertion of genes from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, named after the German town where way back in 1911 a scientist first found a moth to have been killed by the bacteria. Bt brinjal, like Bt cotton, demands the use of substantially lower chemical pesticides. Bt cotton has been a runaway success in India, with about a fifth of the yield increase over the past decade being attributed to its use.

The moratorium was called for because of at least five crucial reasons. First, no state government, cutting across party lines and ideologies, supported the commercialization. Second, there appeared to be no overwhelming consensus on it in the domestic and international scientific community. Third, there were concerns that seed supply would be the monopoly—direct and indirect—of one multinational company whose past reputation has been controversial, to say the least. Fourth, there appeared to be a persuasive case for more tests and trials under an agreed protocol and under an independent regulatory agency that would inspire wider confidence. Fifth, India is the pre-eminent centre for genetic diversity as far as brinjal is concerned, which not only comes in hugely numerous varieties but also finds many uses, both of which could well come under threat. A 19-page “speaking order" detailing the background to and reasons for the moratorium was made public immediately after the moratorium decision was announced. This in itself was acknowledged to be an innovation in ensuring transparency and accountability in governance.

Realizing that such issues cannot be taken without fuller public participation, public consultations took place in seven cities—Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Nagpur. Kolkata and Bhubaneswar were selected because West Bengal and Odisha account for 50% of brinjal production in India. Ahmedabad was selected because of the success of Bt-cotton in Gujarat. Nagpur was chosen because it is the home of India’s premier research institution in cotton. Chandigarh was included because it is the capital of India’s two most agriculturally advanced states while Bengaluru and Hyderabad were chosen because they are the most important centres for biotech research and development (R&D). Over 8,000 people from all sections of society participated in these consultations. As expected, widely divergent views were expressed. These consultations, in which both the intolerance of civil society activists as well as the arrogance of scientists was on full display, were videographed and placed in the public domain. Simultaneously, the views of over 60 scientists in India, US, France, New Zealand and other countries were also sought. A number of scientists supported commercialization while many others opposed it. Some others advocated caution and called for more data.

The speaking order was at pains to point out that the moratorium should not be construed as discouraging on-going R&D in using modern tools of biotechnology for crop improvement and that it applied only to the commercialization of Bt-brinjal. Indeed, at about the same time a different stance was adopted in the case of genetically modified rubber developed by the Rubber Research Institute, Kottayam. The speaking order had also expressed the hope that the moratorium period would be used productively to (i) operationalize the independent regulatory body in its entirety as being recommended by many scientists as well as civil society organizations; (ii) build a broader political (and public) consensus on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture; and (iii) give serious thought to the strategic importance of the seed industry and how we retain public and farmer control over it even as we encourage private investment in this area. Alas, none of these three hopes have been even partially realized as yet. Meanwhile, a technical group set up by no less an institution than the Supreme Court has submitted its report calling for the greatest of caution and circumspection in the introduction of transgenic varieties (that is, varieties that have “external" genes transplanted into them).

The first Green Revolution that transformed India and made it the world’s second largest producer of rice and wheat was entirely public sector-driven. Improved varieties in rice and wheat were developed in publicly funded institutions and were disseminated through them. But over the past few years, the locus of R&D in agri-biotech has shifted to the private sector, and it is this that has caused much of the concern. Strengthening public sector R&D and reviving the public sector seed industry are critical imperatives if India is to move ahead in this vital area. The US approach has been one of permission, while the European approach has been one of prohibition. The moratorium was the middle path based on precaution, an approach that would be both responsible to science and responsive to society. That is the only way to move ahead. Reasoned and sober dialogue must give way to the present acrimony. Technology will necessarily have to play a key role given the challenges of climate stress, although within the overall umbrella of genetic engineering there are a wide variety of techniques available to be harnessed, say for instance, genetic markers. An independent and professional Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India needs to get going at the earliest. At the same time, the use of “traditional" techniques to eliminate the use of chemical pesticides that have been effective in some states, particularly Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, should not be treated with the customary scientist’s disdain and should be propagated nationally.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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