Ratia, Fatehabad district: Allaying fears that genetically-modified (GM) brinjals or Bt brinjals had ‘contaminated’ the vegetable markets of northern India, the Haryana government has ruled out the possibility of an ‘extensive spread’, saying the brinjals came from just one farm.
The incident has been called “the most serious breach of India’s biosafety, brinjal biodiversity, and therefore, bio-security” by environmentalist Aruna Rodrigues, the lead petitioner in a PIL filed in the Supreme Court against GM crops. Advocate Prashant Bhushan sent a legal notice to union environment minister Harsh Vardhan about this case.
The owner of the farm in question, Jeevan Saini of Ratia village on the banks of the Ghaggar river in Fatehabad district, said he had been selling the brinjals for a couple of years now, but had never received any complaints about the taste of the vegetable, or any ill-effects.
Saini said he himself had eaten the Bt brinjals and they tasted fine. “I’m standing in front of you and as you can see there’s nothing wrong with me,” he told ThePrint.
Prominent scientists and geneticists like Deepak Pental and G. Padmanabhan also reiterated that Bt crops are safe, and urged the government to remove the embargo on them to give farmers the benefit of the latest technology.
What is Bt brinjal?
Bt brinjal is a crop genetically modified to carry a gene from a naturally-occurring, soil-borne bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which naturally produces a crystal protein that protects the plant against insects and pests.
In February 2010, the then-minister of state for the environment, Jairam Ramesh, had overruled the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which had approved commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal — the first crop genetically modified for mass production in India — on 14 October 2009.
Ramesh had announced an indefinite moratorium on introducing Bt brinjal, which was developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Pvt Ltd, in association with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore and the University of Agricultural Sciences in Dharwad, Karnataka.
The brinjal, under trial for the nine years, was first sent to the GEAC for approval in 2004. It was cleared by the panel led by leading geneticist Prof. Deepak Pental, but a review committee was constituted in 2007 to address the queries of civil society groups related to health and environmental concerns. The GEAC okayed the commercial cultivation of the crop in 2009 after discussions.
What the authorities found in Haryana
Haryana’s horticulture department has received a report from the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi, confirming that Bt brinjal did make it to the market, but the government said the crop was produced in “just one farm”.
“We have conducted an extensive survey across the farms in Haryana to check if some other farmer was growing the same variety. We have found nothing except one field,” Arjun Singh Saini, director-general of the department of horticulture told ThePrint.
The government suspected that Bt brinjal seeds had been illegally imported from Bangladesh, where the cultivation of the GM crop is allowed. It also suspected leakage of the seeds from Mahyco, the developer of the variety, which had deposited hundreds of kilos of seeds after a moratorium was imposed on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal in 2010. However, the lab report has rejected both the suspicions.
“The report has found Mahyco’s cry1Ac gene negative. Also, the single copy elite event, EE1, introduced by Mahyco in the brinjal, tested negative. While this rules out the chances of leakage from the company or Bangladesh, we are still investigating the matter,” Saini said.
The government has sent the report for further investigation at the Haryana Agriculture University (HAU), Hisar. “On the basis of other gene markers, we are trying to find out the source of seedlings and their impact on health and environment,” Saini said.
Saini said the owner of the farm in question had been selling the brinjal for the last two years. “His produce was very limited, which would have got mixed into the normal (non-GM) brinjals in the markets of three different states — Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab. Hence, there is nothing to worry about,” he said.
However, Rajinder Chaudhary, a farm activist with the Kudrati Kheti Abhiyaan, who blew the whistle on the controversy, was unsure about the government’s findings.
“I suspect that many other farmers were producing the crop. However, it is possible they might have cleaned their farms after the controversy,” said Chaudhary who, in April, had conducted the preliminary ‘lateral flow strip test’, which tested positive and indicated that the brinjal could be genetically modified.
Saini said if the HAU report indicates the brinjals are hazardous, “we will destroy the farmer’s entire crop and pay him compensation”.
The accused farmer’s version
Farmer Jeevan Saini, 33, who stands accused of cultivating the illegal Bt crop, said he was lured into the profession two years ago.
A motor mechanic for the last 20 years, he said he was sitting at the bus station in Dabwali, a village 100 km away from Ratia, when some men in a car approached him. “They asked me if I am interested in buying brinjal plants which don’t catch insects, specifically fruit and shoot borer (sundi). They assured me that the product will be good-looking, healthy and there will be no further expenditure on pesticides,” he told ThePrint in Punjabi.
“I agreed to buy the seedlings and visited the place again with money to collect the plants.”
The price was high, at least 7 times more than the usual. Saini bought 15,000 seedlings — using the majority of his savings — for Rs 7 per seedling. “A normal plant costs less than 50 paise per sapling. I spent more, hoping for a better outcome,” he said.
The next year, 2018, he claimed he sold “healthy, good-looking brinjals” at the local mandi in Tohana, recovering his entire investment. “I didn’t receive any complaints about the taste or ill-effect of the crop. I waited for 2019, expecting to make some profit this year,” he said.
Till last week, the farm was blooming with brinjals. Now, he is unable to cultivate and sell it in the market, until further orders by the department of horticulture. But Jeevan said he wasn’t the only one who bought seedlings from those people. “One of my other friends bought the same seedlings and sold the brinjals along with me,” he said.
The friend in question denied this when contacted by ThePrint.
Meanwhile, Banti Garhwa, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the RSS-affiliated farmers’ body, said: “I am told that there were several farmers who were growing Bt crop in Ratia, Kawal Garh and Ahrwan, but now, no one wants to accept it. Everyone is scared because it is not their mistake. I am hearing they all have cleaned up their farms.”
Speaking about the 2010 decision to place an embargo on GM crops, Pental, the inventor of GM mustard and former vice-chancellor of the Delhi University, said it was a “political” move, which was “not at all scientific”.
“While I do not recommend growing anything illegal, how long will we take pride in keeping our farmers away from the latest technology?” said Pental.
Around the world, there haven’t been many studies that have proved the ill-effects of consuming GM crops. In the US, they were approved for commercial use in 1996, and their production has gone up phenomenally in the last few years.
“There is no study available to prove the side effects of GM food, and the GEAC has checked the efficacy of the product already. We introduce genes in several crops — for instance rust-resistant wheat — by cross-breeding. GM is the same, except here, we add another gene not by cross-breeding but by genetic engineering,” Pental said.
“Spraying a plant 12-13 times in a day with chemicals is not healthy. Biology has given us the solution, which we aren’t ready to accept because of political reasons.”
Prof. G. Padmanabhan, former director and now honorary professor at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science, agreed, insisting that “there were absolutely no side-effects of consuming Bt crop”.
“If it (the crop in Haryana) was a Bt brinjal and people have consumed it, it is absolutely safe. Bt Brinjal is made of the same gene which is inserted in Bt corn, and people in Argentina, United States, Canada, Brazil and South Africa have been eating Bt corn since the last 15-20 years,” the leading biotechnologist said.
“It is high time we should take the embargo off Bt technology. We rejected a technology which Bangladesh accepted and today, I am told that the technology has been taken up by 25,000 farmers.”