Earlier this month, the Narendra Modi government reportedly sanctioned biosafety field trials of two new transgenic varieties of brinjal, developed by a public sector research institute. The news created quite the buzz.
Brinjal is among the most widely available and consumed vegetables in India, after potato, onion and tomato. But a brinjal crop is susceptible to pests, particularly the fruit and shoot borer (FSB), which often affects 50-80 per cent of the crop. Farmers frequently spend over half their input costs on pest control, and insecticides may have to be sprayed 30 to 70 times in a five-month crop cycle.
Many farmers spray products derived from naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), as a bio-pesticide to control several destructive pests, particularly in vegetable crops. But now, advanced molecular biology tools have enabled scientists to identify certain genes in the bacterium that produce insecticidal proteins that specifically kill a certain group of insect pests, and incorporate them in the desired plant by genetic engineering. When the target insects feed on such transgenic plants, they ingest Bt protein and get killed. Thus, this technology provides a built-in control mechanism against the pests, thereby greatly reducing the need to use chemical insecticides. Bt Brinjal has been developed to achieve this objective.
Bt Brinjal in India
There are two basic technology platforms offering Bt Brinjal today. One, developed by Maharashtra-based company Mahyco, is built on the gene Cry1Ac, with the event EE-1. This has been commercially grown in Bangladesh since 2013. Another Bt Brinjal technology was indigenously developed by the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI), using the gene Cry1Fa1, with the Event-142.
Bt Brinjal Cry1Ac, EE-1: 2001 to 2010
- A preliminary greenhouse evaluation to study growth, development and efficacy of Bt Brinjal was introduced by Mahyco, in 2001.
- Mahyco shared the technology with three public sector research organisations to deploy it in open-pollinated varieties of brinjal in 2005.
- Two successive subcommittees evaluated the data generated by the trials, and recommended its environmental release in 2009.
- In October 2009, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), while recommending Bt Brinjal’s environmental release, placed the final decision before the government in view of “the very important policy implication at the national level”.
Bt Brinjal Cry1Fa1, Event-142: 2001-2010
This transgenic Bt Brinjal expressing the gene Cry1Fa1 was developed by IARI in 2001-2004.
- The technology was transferred to Bejo Sheetal Seeds Pvt Ltd (BSSPL), Jalna in 2005, to conduct biosafety studies as per the regulatory requirement.
- IARI filed a patent in 2006, for inventing the synthetic Cry1Fa1 gene. The patent was granted in 2010.
- In 2009, biosafety research level, BRL-I, trials were initiated by BSSPL at three locations with two Bt Brinjal hybrids — Janak Bt and BSS 793 Bt — in Jalna, Varanasi and Guntur.
- Limited seed production of Bt Brinjal hybrids for BRL-II trials was approved by the GEAC in 2010.
But eventually, the science of both these Bt Brinjals failed the political test. On 9 February 2010, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) announced an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal following a round of ‘national consultations’. Subsequently, all field trials of the GM crops were stopped in 2013.
Bangladesh picks up where India left off
In 2009, Bangladesh began tests and trials for Bt Brinjal Cry1Ac with EE-1. It approved the first Bt Brinjal (EE-1) variety for commercial release, with 20 farmers sowing the new seeds in 2013.
The year 2018 marked the fifth anniversary of Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh. During its meeting in September 2018, the GEAC noted that nearly 50,000 farmers in Bangladesh were growing Bt Brinjal. Over 27,000 farmers had adopted Bt brinjal in 2017-18, not including the farmers who had saved their own seeds from the previous season.
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), together with Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), carried out a randomised control trial among Bt Brinjal and non-Bt Brinjal farmers in Bangladesh in 2018. The key findings showed that net yields were 42 per cent higher for Bt Brinjal farmers. The Bt Brinjal farmers also witnessed a 31 per cent reduction in costs per kg of produce, and a 27.3 per cent increase in gross revenue per hectare.
While the quantity of pesticides used decreased by 39 per cent, the rate of FSB infestation in Bt Brinjal plants was only 1.8 per cent, in contrast to 33.9 per cent of the other. A report published in 2020, assessed the impact based on a survey of brinjal farmers in five districts. Results indicated that Bt Brinjal provided an average of 19.6 per cent higher yield and 21.7 cent higher revenue compared to non-Bt varieties.
Bangladesh recognises that Bt Brinjal needs to be made available in more varieties suitable for different agro-climatic areas in the country, and in varieties that appeal to local tastes.
Political merry-go-round on GM crops
Prime Minister Modi’s 2014 claim that there was a possibility of genetic engineering in ancient India raised expectations among many farmers on the prospects of genetically modified (GM) crops. But here is a glance at what really happened to the GM crops.
- In July 2014, the GEAC recommended experimentation and field trials of a number of GM crops, including brinjal, chickpea, cotton, rice, and mustard.
- In November 2014, BSSPL sought an NOC from five states for BRL-II field trials of Bt Brinjal, but made no headway.
- In a written reply during Rajya Sabha’s 2014 winter session, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said, “There is no scientific evidence to prove that GM crops would harm soil, human health and environment… GM crops have beneficial traits… that may help in food security.”
- By the end of 2016, some companies withdrew their applications for GM crops, which were at different stages of development. By 2018, some other companies had sought permission to defer their trials due to policy uncertainties.
- In September 2018, the GEAC met to discuss Mahyco’s request to revive large scale field trials of Bt Brinjal. The GEAC sought relevant data on post-commercial release of Bt Brinjal from Bangladesh.
- In April 2019, reports of unauthorised Bt Brinjal cultivation in Haryana surfaced. Samples tested by government agencies suggested evidence of genetic modification, but did not specify the particular gene involved.
- Led by the Shetkari Sanghatana, a voluntary farmers network in Maharashtra, farmers and friends came together to contribute Rs 50,000 to compensate Jeevan Saini, a marginal farmer, whose half-acre plot of land allegedly growing Bt Brinjal was uprooted in May 2019.
- In June 2019, the Shetkari Sanghatana launched a Kisan Satyagraha to demand access to latest technologies, by publicly sowing the unapproved herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton, offering dual protection against herbicides and bollworms, in Maharashtra and Haryana. The protesting farmers promised to sow Bt Brinjal as part of farmers’ “field trial” since the government had stopped all trials.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
The second decade of the 21st century, 2011 to 2020, has turned out to be the lost decade for India, as far as agriculture biotechnology is concerned. The GEAC has held only 35 meetings in 10 years, and even recommended trials were not held. This contrasts sharply with the previous decade, when the GEAC held almost 81 meetings, and over a dozen GM crops were in various stages of development.
In May 2020, the GEAC, once again granted permission to BSSPL to conduct BRL-II confined field trials with two transgenic Bt Brinjal hybrids (Event-42), in at least two of the eight designated states, provided the state governments issue NOCs. This is a repeat of the recommendations for confined field trials issued in 2010, and again in 2014, both of which had failed to make any difference on the ground. In September, BSSPL said that it hopes to begin the field trials in April 2021.
This chronology of Bt Brinjal’s development in India suggests that policymakers have merely used the regulatory mechanism to avoid taking a clear decision, focussing on hypothetical risks rather than real ones. The endless demand for trials and tests only suggests that in the name of science, there is an attempt to choke the progress of science and stop its adoption for practical use.
This is a complete reversal of the fundamental legal philosophy of modern civilisation, which holds that one is innocent unless proven guilty. The yardstick now being used for GM crops is that these crops are inherently dangerous, and therefore presumed guilty, unless it can be shown that they are not. But a negative can never be proven.
As any toxicologist knows, it is the dosage that makes a poison.
Increasingly, it is the farmers, who bear the daily risks of agriculture, who are now speaking up in support of technologies that could reduce their risks and improve their wellbeing. It is the farmers who are defying the legal diktat. By taking the risk of sowing unapproved GM crops without any assurance of quality, they are engaging in the largest field trial ever possible. These brave farmers are demonstrating their capacity to take on the risk society is imposing on them by denying them access to new technologies, including GM crops.
Indian farmers are the true representatives of Aatmanirbhar Bharat, and their produce is the original ‘Make in India’, long before these slogans were coined.
The author is an independent policy analyst and the former founder-director of Liberty Institute. He has an interest in agriculture reforms and is working with farmers’ networks on the ground. Views are personal.