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Genes In A Twist

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New Delhi - It can be no one’s case that the greatest of caution should not be used while evaluating the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops or that we be blinded to the impact of these crops on reducing bio-diversity. But there has to be a limit to everything.

Nine years after the gene-altered brinjal was first developed, and after over five years of the country’s biotech regulator scrutinising test reports of field trials, Bt-brinjal is still far from being commercialised. Bt-brinjal, which carries the insect-killer gene, cry1Ac, borrowed from a common soil bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis,Bt) has been cleared by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex body for approving GM products.

However, under pressure from the anti-biotech lobby, the environment ministry wants a fresh public debate on Bt-brinjal before finally approving it. This is despite the fact that the results presented by Bt-brinjal’s developer, Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), have been corroborated by the trials conducted by public sector agricultural research institutes as well as by a couple of state agricultural universities. These results have also been peer-reviewed by at least two expert panels, including the one appointed by the Supreme Court. Their reports were taken into account by the GEAC before granting the final approval.

These bio-safety trials, including toxicity, allergy and nutritional studies, carried out on animals like rabbits, rats, chickens, carps, goats and cows, and environmental evaluation through studies on pollen escape are said to have confirmed that Bt-brinjal is safe to grow and consume. It is true that there is a court case pending on the matter, but this does not automatically forbid the environment ministry from honouring the GEAC’s verdict — unless the court specifically bars it from doing so.

A couple of other points also need to be made, apart from the fact that inordinate delays only act as a disincentive when it comes to further research. It is not just Mahyco’s Bt-brinjal that is at stake here. Other GM products being evolved in the public and private sector include the transgenic seeds of bhindi (okra), tomato, potato, rice and several other key food crops.

The producers of these gene-tailored seeds are awaiting the final outcome of Bt-brinjal before putting up their products to the GEAC for formal approval. It needs to be kept in mind that Indian agriculture badly needs a fresh green revolution to help increase yields as well as help face the threats posed by pests, diseases, drought, salinity and climate change. Had the dwarf wheat varieties of the 1960s (which were also gene-altered, though with conventional breeding techniques) faced the kind of resistance the Bt-brinjal is up against, the country would never have witnessed the green revolution.

And the lesson from Bt-cotton is that, if the authorised launch is delayed beyond reasonable limits, farmers will start cultivating illegal seeds. Since illegal seeds were of indifferent quality and were not accompanied by proper instructions, this caused crop failures and immense economic losses to farmers. Availability of the officially approved and authentic Bt-cotton hybrids, on the other hand, proved a boon for the farmers. In which case, what are we waiting for?