White egg-shaped brinjal, orange-yellow round type, red ones, single Brinjal weighing more than 2 kg, small marble-sized ones – all in all, about 50 varieties of brinjal were on display at the ‘Brinjal diversity Mela’ at Lalbagh on 5th April. Some of these brinjal varieties are rarely cultivated and thus rarely available. This event was an effort to reach out to the public and farmers to inform them about the diversity of a species, educate them about effects of ‘Genetically Modified food technology’. The fest saw notable guests, including film actress Tara and artist MS Murthy and included informative talks from scientists, doctors and farmers.
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The event was jointly organised by Sahaja Samrudha (an organic farmers association) and the Association for India’s Development (AID), the Jaivika Krishi Society (JKS), Samvada and the Mysore Horticulture Society (MHS). The mela drew a huge crowd on Sunday. Greenpeace, the environmental activist group, and an opponent of GM food, also had its stall in the venue. There was cooking competition and drawing contest – all on the brinjal theme. Key point was screening of the movie ‘Poison on the platter’ produced by noted film maker Mahesh Bhatt.
GM or Genetically Modified – in simple terms would mean ‘cut-and-paste’ of genes from one organism to another, unrelated organism. This concept has raised heated debates world-wide on the use of food crops based on such organisms. While the promoters say that this is the answer to feed the hungry populace, concerned experts argue that such food may have long term undesired effects and ultimately be a millstone on the shoulders of mankind already burdened with other serious challenges.
Cotton was the first GM crop released for commercial cultivation in India in 2002. GM food concept has gained momentum and today India is under tremendous pressure to allow them into the domestic market.
Concurrently, the movement against GM is getting stronger by the day. Aside from GM cotton, no other GM crop has been commercially released as of yet. But, most of India’s corn and soya imported from US is genetically modified. More worrisome is the fact that there could be large availability of illegal GM foods.
Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is the government regulatory body in India. This is the sole agency for approval of GM food. Large field trials and final nod of consent for the commercial release happen under the authority of this body. This is supported by the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology.
Though people are aware about the GM food, most of us don’t know its availability or what to do if the supermarkets are stacked with it. “What! GM brinjal?” Raksha N, mother of two can’t believe it. “It is one of the favourite in our household and now I will have to think twice before buying brinjal. Would it really remain a vegetable with spider-genes in it?” she says, clearly upset.
“Let them label it. So that people who don’t mind buying GM vegetables can do that and those who don’t want them, can stay far from it” is the practical approach of Anantha Rao, who says he loves brinjal. He is a consultant with an IT firm.
Is labelling possible? Sejal Parikh, an volunteer from the Association for India’s Development clarifies, “labelling is not possible in a developing country like India where the distribution network cannot be controlled. Even growing GM food as per international standards is difficult in India where farmers normally have small lands. That’s one of the reasons why we are protesting GM food.” International standards stipulate that there should be a minimum distance maintained between a field growing GM crop and an adjacent field which grows a non-GM crop.
Brinjal or eggplant is a low cost and versatile vegetable, believed to have 1200 varieties worldwide. It is native to India and Malaysia. “There are around 100 types of brinjal grown in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Orissa. For example, there is one particular type, normally grown in Shimoga district where each brinjal weighs above 2 kilo gram,” informs Krishna Prasad, from the organic farming group Sahaja Samrudhdha.
“Scientists must not stay aloof from the actual farms and come out with new research,” adds Krishna Prasad. “Let such research come from ‘lab to land’.” He feels farmers are better at cross-breeding and knowledge of crop diversity. Scientists must make use of their practical experience. Research should be farmer-centric. Then they can do wonders with food crops, without the need for gene-technologies, “Why are no such efforts happening?” he questions.
GM brinjal or Bt brinjal developed by Mayhco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company) is now ready, with field trials done and waiting for its commercial release. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that attacks pests. The genetically modified brinjal contains genes from this bacterium that helps it withstand attack from certain pests.
After brinjal, what comes next? About 50 other varieties of food crops are undergoing field trials. These include rice, corn, mustard and several vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, okra, et cetera. Already field trials are going on for these.
This writer tried to reach scientists from the University of Agricultural Science, Bangalore (UAS). According to Dr. Ramanjini Gowda, a professor at UAS, resource people are instructed not to talk to media on this matter. Officials at the multinational biotech company, Monsanto, which partly owns Mayhco were not reachable for comment.
Why mess with nature’s ways?
The weeds could become resistant to the herbicides, is the worry of a farmer from Mandya district. He further wonders about other birds/insects which feed on the weeds or on the crop itself. Will the modified genes from one plant get transferred to other organisms? What if cross-pollination happens? “Nature’s ways are subtle and intricate. Why meddle with it?” he asks.
“South Asia region has a rich agricultural history, with practices and a system that has stood the test of time,” explains P Srinivas, an organic farming specialist and an author of several books on the subject, including “Panchagavya”. He adds that just like people, agriculture varies from place to place, depending on soil varieties and environmental or climatic factors. Where does this one-formula-for-all technology fit in? It simply does not make sense. “And think of the plentiful varieties of [each] species we are going to lose!” he exclaims, all the talk about GM food being economical is an eye wash. Not only India, GM food is simply not suited to any country, is his viewpoint.
As with any other technology with potential, this too has pros and cons, is the stance of Vasanth Kumar, Director of Horticulture, under the state ministry of agriculture and horticultural sciences. “Like atomic energy, we need to be very very careful with the usage of this technology, since it can come up with mind-boggling possibilities,” he states. He further says that with this know-how, we are able to make rare vaccines, which were made from animal sources before. But, when it comes to food- our fundamental necessity, we need to be extra conscientious. The private companies’ purview does not include the detailed study of the side effects. “We need to be open minded and focus on our positives, like improving existing breeds and educating farmers,” is the point of Dr Ramakrishna, Assistant Director, Horticulture.
Gene Technology student Ramyashri S says, “GM food’s advantages sound good. We cannot simply turn our backs to it. It is important to have further unbiased studies to assess the latent risks.” What is worrying activists and farmers is the hurry with which our government seems to be taking on GM technology, when around 180 countries in the world do not allow it. The film ‘Poison on the Platter’ shows that most of the imported food from USA has genetically modified content in it and it is simply not labelled; it is available in the malls across the country, while the government claims GM food is not available in the market.