Agri Business

Centre must push for field trials of Bt. Brinjal in States

G Chandrashekhar | Updated on September 05, 2020 Published on September 05, 2020

A Bt brinjal variety   -  The Hindu

It may be necessary for the Central government to step in to encourage smooth conduct of the field trials

In a welcome sign that the decade-long benign indifference to technology infusion in the farm sector is set to change to one of positive support, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has decided to permit bio-safety research trials of indigenously-developed genetically modified (GM) brinjal, also known as eggplant.

For seed companies which are heavily invested in technology, this is a flicker of light and hope at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Many had nearly concluded that their investment was dead. Experiments in gene-modified crops are not new to this country, and brinjal in particular has had a chequered history. One may recall, field trials of this crop were stopped by the government in 2010 by placing a moratorium on the commercial cultivation in India.

The crop under experiment is called Bt. Brinjal with the prefix Bt. standing for a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, the gene of which is inserted in the crop seed so that the crop develops insect resistance. It prevents crop infestation by fruit and shoot borer, which is known to inflict heavy losses on growers.

The regulator GEAC has granted permission to conduct bio-safety research trials with two transgenic Bt. Brinjal hybrids in eight specified states during seasons 2020-2023, subject to a slew of conditions including a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Department of Agriculture of the concerned State.

While the applicant — Beejsheetal Research — located at Jalna is duty-bound to comply with all the conditions stipulated by GEAC, it may be necessary for the Central government to step in to encourage smooth conduct of the field trials. Instead of leaving the decision of the NOC to the whims and fancies of the specified state governments, it may be desirable for the Union Agriculture Ministry and the Environment Ministry to advise the states to support research.

After all, GEAC is a regulator under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the regulator’s well-considered decision to permit contained field trial is in the interest of advancing farm research. Without field trials, data cannot be generated and without data no rational decision on the next stage of research leading up to commercialisation of the crop can be taken.

Over the last 10 years or so, many seed companies have poured large sums of money in research and technology infusion in the farm sector; but the policy environment has been far from conducive. Seed companies intending to advance science and technology (S&T) have become rather wary of investing in farm tech research because of unstable and unclear government policies. Hopefully, this is changing if the GEAC decision is any guide.

It is well known that pesticides have harmful effects on human health and Bt. technology is one way of reducing pesticide use. It is to be expected that there will be shrill objections to the GEAC decision and activists are sure to get hyper-active for the purpose of opposing the decision. New Delhi must stand the ground firmly and not allow research to be hijacked by a few. No one should be allowed to stop the march of science.

An issue that deserves close attention is the risk of resistance development. So, tests have to be well designed, scientifically conducted and widely accepted.

An interesting aspect of Bt. Brinjal is that our neighbour Bangladesh has already adopted the technology and has been cultivating and consuming the crop in recent years without any adverse impact on health and environment.

(The writer is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist. Views are personal)

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Published on September 05, 2020
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