By Syed Akbar
Four thousand years after it entered the Indian kitchen, all time favourite brinjal may soon shed its traditional flavour. With the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee giving its nod for the genetically modified or Bt brinjal for human consumption, doubts are being expressed about the very survival of the native brinjal varieties.
India is the home to about 2500 varieties of brinjal, all native to the land. Unlike tomato and potato, which entered the Indian soil in the last 100 years, brinjal has been under cultivation for about four millennia. When the Bt brinjal enters the mass cultivation phase in India, it will become the first GM food crop approved for human consumption.
"The mouth-watering bagara baigan or baigan ka bharta may not be the same again. Once the genetically modified or Bt brinjal is introduced, the centuries old Indian cuisine may undergo a change. GM crops, though give better yields, will rob off taste. There are other environmental concerns too," cautions senior geneticist Dr MM Khaja.
Though the USA and other Western countries have approved GM foods like Bt soya and Bt maize, they are primarily meant for animal feed. Those who are against GM crops argue that since GM crops are a new phenomenon, the long time side effects on human health are yet to be understood.
"Tinkering with Nature does have catastrophic effects not only on environment but also on the health of man and animals. The injection of Bt gene from a soil bacteria into food stuff may lead to mutations in human body, may be at a later date. The GEAC should have conducted safety studies for at least a decade before declaring Bt brinjal safe for human use," points out Ch Venkatasubbaiah, who runs an environmental group against GM foods.
Thanks to its ubiquitous use in the Indian kitchen, brinjal has the distinction of being the second highest consumed vegetable in the country, after potato. The crop is grown over 5.50 lakh hectares providing livelihood to a little over 15 lakh farmers and about 50 lakh vegetable vendors. Indians consume about one crore tonnes of brinjal, 25 per cent of the world's total consumption. At stake is about Rs 10,000 crore worth of native brinjal production and priceless biodiversity.
Those in favour of Bt technology argue that GM brinjal will become a boon for the average Indian farmer, since it will improve the overall production, quality and taste of the vegetable by preventing it from its common pest. There's no need of spraying of pesticide and this will enhance the quality of the product, besides improving its taste.
The private seed company that is coming out with Bt brinjal has selected some mammals and birds for poison studies and claims that no toxicity was found in the lab animals. It is yet to be used on humans and only time will tell whether it will prove toxic on human beings.
Internationally renowned biotechnologist Prof DR Krishna calls for proper checks on GM crops. "If proper checks and balances are not evolved to regulate the developments in the bio-technology sector, it will lead to more problems and complications resulting in the loss of our rich bio-diversity and threatening the public health."
Another concern about GM crops is the Bt toxin from bacteria, which some scientists argue, is about a thousand times more potent when injected into food stuff. Greenpeace, which has been spearheading world-wide campaign against genetic modification of food items, expresses concern that if Bt brinjal was allowed, other food crops like lady's finger and cabbage will be genetically tinkered. Studies on these crops are already in progress. There's a talk of even GM rice.