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INTERVIEW Bt brinjal on hold as new issues surface.

Byline: Nilima Pathak

New Delhi After the brouhaha rose over the Bt brinjal issue, the government has set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, a single-window mechanism with an integrated regulatory system. For now, Bt brinjal has been put on hold due to the many unanswered questions.

However, P. Ananda Kumar, Director, National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology in New Delhi, sheds some light in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

Kumar initiated the work on Bt brinjal in India in 1994, even before the Maharashtra hybrid seeds company (Mahyco) thought of developing Bt cotton, by licensing it from agricultural company Monsanto. Working at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi, Kumar introduced a Bt genes named Pusa Purple Long and field tested it two years later.

It demonstrated limited protection against Brinjal Shoot and Fruit Borer and subsequently, Mahyco developed a transgenic brinjal.

GULF NEWS: Is India ready for Bt brinjal?

P. ANANDA KUMAR: It's much-needed and the need arises from the fact that brinjal is the most common vegetable, available round the year and consumed by the poorest of poor in our country.

From the health perspective, it is extremely imperative that we opt for Bt brinjal. Also, due to the reduced consumption of pesticides, we eventually protect our environment, bio-diversity and beneficial insects, which are otherwise harmed by massive usage of pesticides.

What are the pros and cons for the farming fraternity?

During cultivation, brinjal faces major problems of infestation. This causes 50 to 60 per cent damage to the crop. Due of this, the farmer's market yield is only 40 per cent. Moreover, a farmer has to spray the crop with insecticide 30 to 40 times in four months to bug-proof the crop.

However, the introduction of Bt brinjal will rid the farmers of this nuisance and they will stand to gain considerably, as it increases the market yield manifold.

Have adequate tests been carried out in India on the genetically modified (GM) crops to test for long-term resistance to pests as well as their impact on public health?

For now we have only one commercialised GM crop which is Bt cotton. Bt brinjal is closely following suit, although it is not yet commercialised.

However, all the repertoire of necessary testing has been conducted on these crops with respect to bio-safety such as toxicity and allergies for flora and fauna.

It's being said that the government has allowed Monsanto to monopolise the Indian seed market.

This was a false propaganda created by some vested interests. This is not Monsanto's Bt brinjal.

It has been developed by an indigenous seed company named Mahyco, which accessed the Cry1Ac gene from Monsanto based on a licence in 1994.

Now Mahyco has obtained freedom to deploy this gene in any crop of its choice. In this respect, Bt is not under any obligation to pay royalty or any fees to Monsanto.

Has the Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh done well to impose a temporary moratorium on commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal?

The moratorium imposed by the minister on Bt brinjal is because of the outcome of public consultations and the opinions expressed by a large section of people, including NGOs, consumer groups and farmers.

It has been done on apprehensions and opinions. And the minister wants to have a thorough look, in addition to what has already been researched.

But were additional tests required?

The minister's report indicates that probably some additional tests were needed to assist the complete aspects of the safety of Bt brinjal.

The genetic engineering approval committee has been asked to look at these concerns and if possible conduct additional tests.

The Central Institute of Cotton Research has stated about Bt cotton becoming ineffective and new bugs emerging in fields. They say similar things could happen to Bt brinjal. Do you agree?

In Bt cotton, there have been an emergence of new pests, basically due to the consumption of pesticides which has come down drastically.

When we managed the major pests with Bt, present inside the plant, there were other pests unaffected by Bt. These pests have a kind of scope for resurgence and show themselves because there are no pesticides being used.

But it's not a cause for concern. This is part of the insect population's dynamics and is absolutely manageable.

In the case of Bt brinjal, there is a possibility that secondary bugs, such as sucking pests, may surface since no pesticides will be sprayed.

When we talk of adverse effects of Bt on human and animal health or bio-diversity, what are the aeeffects'?

From a scientific perspective, Bt is absolutely harmless to human beings and animals.

This is because human beings lack the receptacle protein which is required to bind the Bt protein for the Bt to work. This is why Bt is innocuous to human and animal health.

Is it correct that Bt will destroy brinjal's aeayurvedic' value. And that it is used in several aetraditional' forms of medicine.

I am not very sure of that and have had extensive consultations with my colleagues, ayurveda specialists and experts from other alternative forms of medicines. I am told that brinjal does not have any significant medicinal value.

It's said that certain wild varieties, and not the brinjal that we consume, have a slightly different bio-chemical composition and have medicinal properties that are used in the Indian system of medicine?

The basic function of the Bt gene is to protect the plant from insecticides.

Therefore, even if wild varieties of brinjal, which human beings do not consume, contain some medicinal value, they will not be affected by Bt brinjal.

That's because the pollen flow from cultivated brinjal to wild brinjals is extremely remote under natural conditions.

However, if you deliberately cross a cultivated brinjal with a wild variety of brinjal, you may succeed in getting some fertilised ovules. But then they will not have viable seeds. This means that the next generation from the inter-specific crops is not feasible and will not perpetuate in the natural eco-system.

Is IARI doing further research on Bt brinjal and any other crops?

It's not only Bt brinjal or Bt crops. IARI has, in fact, been working on a variety of transgenic crops and other GM traits and are getting different crops ready. These include Bt chickpea, Bt sorghum, Bt sugarcane, Bt castor and Bt pigeon-pea (arhar).

It's important to understand that Bt crops give protection to insect pests whereas GM crops could be resistant to fungal diseases or may carry vitamins, which are essential for human nutrition. They may also carry quality protein necessary for human metabolism.

Do you agree with supporters of GM food when they say u aechoose GM foods or starvation'?

I totally agree because it's a simple logic. By 2050, the projections show that the Indian population may reach a 1.8 billion mark. How will we feed such a large population?

Additionally, we know that urbanisation is eating away the cultivated land, our soils are getting eroded and water resources depleted. Above all there is the issue of the global climate change. What is the alternative? The answer lies in adopting new techniques of biotechnology.

Climbing graph

n Dr P. Ananda Kumar was born on November 14, 1955 in Kuchipudi Village, Andhra Pradesh.

o He was educated at Sri Venkateshwara University in Tirupati and holds an M.Sc degree in Botany.

o He joined agricultural research service and did a Ph.D from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi.

o He worked in Germany on Alexander Von Humboldt Fellowship in 1991-92 and learnt molecular biology.

o He rejoined IARI and moved to the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology where he took over as project director in 2007.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 20, 2010
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