Business, Finance & Economics

Eggplant of doom?

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BANGALORE, India — In India, the humble eggplant mainly featured in dinner-table conversations that measured the popularity of the baingan bharta (spicy roasted eggplant) against the achaari baingan (pickle-style baby eggplant) and the bharvaan baingan (stuffed eggplant).

Now as a genetically modified (GM) strain of eggplant heads to dinner plates, the innocuous vegetable is at the center of a more vital debate with a global echo. Critics are weighing the potential health hazards posed by genetically modified crops against their role in bringing about a second food revolution in populous India.

The number of hungry people in the world rose to over 1 billion this year, and every seventh person on the planet goes without food, says a U.N. report. In India growing food in adequate quantities and at prices the poor can afford amplifies the challenge.

The country’s biotechnology regulator and the government’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee have recently cleared the food crop called Bt brinjal as safe for human consumption, paving the way for more such clearances.

The final approval rests in the hands of India’s environmental minister, Jairam Ramesh. In the face of huge political and civil resistance, Ramesh has promised to arrive at a “careful and considered decision."

If the crop gets the minister’s go-ahead, the eggplant strain will be in the first GM crop to be introduced in the densely-populated South Asian subcontinent. A dozen GM food crops are in use in other parts of the world, including the United States.

But resistance is building up in India, where farmers’ groups are planning a protest to block the final approval. Signature campaigns have been launched by activists and dissenters in the clearance committee are airing their differences.

Critics of genetically modified crops say large-scale, unrestricted use of GM crops, created by inserting the genes of bacteria, parasites or other animals, would play with human lives and create havoc with the eco-balance.

The "Bt" brinjal strain is named after the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis that naturally makes an insect-killing toxin that wards off the brinjal farmer’s most-dreaded pest, a small moth that attacks the fruits and stem of the plant.

The genetically modified Bt brinjal has been engineered with a gene extracted from this bacterium’s DNA so that it comes with inbuilt resistance to the disease.

“We do not need GM foods in India, not now, not 20 years later,” says Pushpa Bhargava, a senior biotechnologist based in the city of Hyderabad in southern India. “We should use simpler alternatives to increase food production and food availability,” Dr. Bhargava, a dissenting member of the Bt brinjal approval committee told GlobalPost.

Some opponents have commented on the traces of toxicity found in the animals injected with Bt during laboratory tests and the potential hazards to human lives. Bhargava said there is an overwhelming amount of reliable scientific literature on a whole range of adverse effects.

In India, where food production depends on the vagaries of the weather, GM foods are a hot button for not just debate over bio-safety but also the power of multinationals to influence food choices.

The GM eggplant strain has been developed by American agrichemical giant Monsanto with its Indian partner Mahyco. The crop, its promoters claim, can double yields and reduce pesticide use by nearly half.

This is not India’s first GM crop. Earlier, Monsanto introduced Bt cotton in the farming belts of central India where debt-ridden and desperate farmers were committing suicide. Supporters of GM crops attribute the recent spike in cotton production in India to the introduction of Bt cotton.

But groups like Greenpeace are saying the risks to human health as well as the environment have not been investigated thoroughly enough. They fear that the introduction of Bt brinjal will open the flood gates for a host of other foods such as bananas, potatoes, chickpea, peanut, okra, tomato and others that are currently in field trials.

Opponents say that while it is wrong to spray pesticides on food crops, it is even worse to genetically engineer pest-resistance into the food on the dining table.

But advocates of GM foods see the eggplant as a forerunner of a new biotechnology wave in India’s agricultural market. They view gene manipulation as a means to make crops withstand drought, disease and pests.

The debate over GM food comes at a time when India is facing a huge food crisis as it struggles to meet the growing challenges of a burgeoning population, dwindling farming land area and reduced yield from climate change.

India’s small farms are crumbling under the stress of gambling with nature. This year, for instance, critical monsoon rains have failed in some parts of the country while other parts have been submerged under floods.

Impending shortages have pushed up food prices and the government is now battling inflation. A shortage-induced food panic in India has the unnerving potential to disrupt the world markets.

Traditional crop breeding methods are time-consuming and often inaccurate, says Professor M.S. Swaminathan, who is acknowledged as the pioneer of India’s first food revolution in the 1970s that made the country self-reliant.

The proponents of GM foods say that such food crops can form the foundation of a second food revolution. Critics maintain that such manipulation can be a large scale health hazard. Weighed against the grim scenario of hunger and rising food prices in India, the debate is both emotional and explosive.