Agri Business

Nod for trials of Bt Brinjal varieties revives GMO concerns

TV Jayan New Delhi | Updated on September 08, 2020 Published on September 06, 2020

A brinjal crop needs nearly 25-30 spraying while transgenic crop brings down the spraying to 2-3 in a cycle   -  S_Subramanium

An approval given for confined field trials to two new Bt brinjal varieties for biosafety evaluation by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in seven States has left many curious about the Narendra Modi government’s stand on genetically modified (GM) crops.

GEAC, in a meeting held a few months ago, decided to allow a Jalna-based, relatively-unknown seed, firm Beejsheetal Research Private Ltd to carry out biosafety research trials of its two Bt brinjal varieties — carrying a new bacterial gene Bt CryiFa1 — in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal between 2020 and 2023 with the approval of the State agricultural departments.

Issue of commercialisation

Thanks to the stiff resistance from the environmental groups, which fear genetic contamination of traditional brinjal varieties, the earlier UPA government imposed a moratorium on further field trials of a Bt brinjal variety developed by Mahyco in 2009-10.

A senior agricultural scientist working in a public research system and who has worked on Bt brinjal varieties in the past, said “these (newly-approved) trials would not mean much. Anybody can do R&D and carry out limited trials, but getting approval for commercialisation is not easy as before that it may have to undergo a stringent scrutiny.”

 

He said a number of public sector research laboratories have developed Bt brinjal varieties on their own in the past, but they did not go anywhere because of the moratorium on the variety developed by the private sector firm. “Over the years, state funding of GM research diminished drastically, pushing the GM research more or less into the hands of private sector completely,” the scientist working with an Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) lab, on condition of anonymity, said.

‘Illegal Bt seed concern’

According to him, what is more difficult is to prevent farmers from illegally adopting the technology. “Nearly 70 per cent of the cost involved in brinjal cultivation is for pesticides. A brinjal crop needs nearly 25-30 spraying while transgenic crop brings down the spraying to 2-3 in a cycle,” he said, citing the example of how some farmers in Haryana tried to cultivate Bt brinjal last year. “There are unconfirmed reports that Bt brinjal seeds smuggled in from Bangladesh are freely available in many parts of West Bengal,” he said.

Another public sector scientist said transgenic technology is on its way out. “Gene editing would help us to leapfrog. It is very similar to natural selection by which the plant kingdom weeds out undesirable characteristics,” he said. In January, the government circulated a draft on gene editing technologies, but it is yet to finalise it, the scientist said.

Meanwhile, the National Seed Association of India (NSAI), a grouping of Indian seed firms, said it was not against the technology. “NSAI welcomes all new technology. But it is important to enforce the strictest safety standard on trial fields. The traits should not be allowed to escape into the environment as was the case with HT Bt cotton,” said Indra Shekhar Singh, Director — Policy and Outreach at NSAI.

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Published on September 06, 2020
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