Above: Activists and farmers holding a protest against GM foods in New Delhi in 2016/Photo: seedfreedom.info
The surprising detection in Haryana of this new banned species Bt Brinjal can have a deleterious effect on health and authorities are taking measures to carry out inspections in all districts of the state
By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh
While opinion remains divided over the introduction of Bt cotton in the country, the only genetically modified (GM) crop allowed so far, reports of GM brinjal being sneaked in and illegally planted by some farmers are causing great concern.
While cotton is a non-consumable crop, the introduction of yet-to-be-tested GM brinjal could have a direct bearing on the health of consumers and cause irretrievable damage to the environment. Saplings of it are sold at seven times the price of ordinary brinjals, but some farmers prefer them due to the belief that there is less scope of the crop getting damaged by pests and insects.
Those opposed to the introduction of Bt brinjal say it has not been tested for health hazards and danger to the environment. Well-known food policy analyst and agriculture expert Devinder Sharma says that if Bt brinjal is put in a jar, one will find a number of dead pests and insects in it a few days later.
Scientists say GM brinjals contain genes which impact the digestive system of humans and render antibiotics ineffective. That is why several organisations have been opposing the request of MNCs to allow the sale of its seeds in the country. The issue came into sharp focus this month when authorities in Haryana were tipped off about the possible cultivation of Bt brinjals in a field near Ratia town of Fatehabad district. Samples from the particular farm were taken and tested at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR). The report said the samples tested positive for gene markers. This will have to be further investigated by the Haryana Agricultural University in Hisar. While it was not clear which GM version may have been leaked, the report said that the “samples have tested negative for the CRY 1AC gene and EE 1 event”. This indicated that the samples were not contaminated by the Bt brinjal gene of the variety commonly being grown in Bangladesh, but were certainly genetically modified. The district authorities directed officials to destroy the crop and bury it in a 10-foot-deep pit to prevent other fields from getting contaminated. The farmer whose crop was destroyed claimed that he had bought the saplings from a “way-side” vendor in 2017, but admitted that they were priced seven times more than the regular variety. The vendor had told him that those saplings were resistant to pests.
Haryana’s Director General of Horticulture, Arjun Saini, told the media that the government was very serious about the issue. “The environment department will take further measures like investigation and FIR as per the law,” he said. Prof KP Singh, V-C, CCS Haryana Agriculture University, Hisar, said the tests could have been carried out in the University but the central government has authorised only NBPGR to handle such issues.
The biotech regulator, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), was tipped off by a group of activists about the presence of “suspected Bt brinjal” at the farm. The group was informed about four weeks ago by Prof Rajinder Chaudhary, a former professor at Rohtak’s Maharshi Dayanand University who runs an NGO, Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan, which is associated with the Coalition for a GM-Free India. He said one of his friends was keen on growing pest-free brinjal in his kitchen garden and learnt from a man running a nursery in Fatehabad about the farm near Ratia where such a variety was available.
The NGO sent a representation to various government agencies seeking immediate intervention. Based on this representation, the environment ministry asked the Haryana government to take necessary action after verifying the facts. The state government, besides taking other steps, formed a committee of experts to study the health effects of Bt brinjal.
In a letter sent to Haryana chief secretary DS Dhesi, Chaudhary said it was more important to “immediately identify the supply chain of Bt brinjal being cultivated in Haryana and plug it besides destroying the extant crop. It appears that by delaying taking required action, you are facilitating the destruction of evidence”. The chief secretary called a meeting of the horticulture department and directed the officials to conduct a thorough inspection to see if Bt brinjal was being grown anywhere in all the 22 districts of the state.
Deputy Commissioner of Fatehabad Dhirendra Khadgata said no legal action has been taken so far against the farmer concerned, but it would be taken if the district administration got instructions from higher authorities. The farmer, Jivan Saini, on the other hand, has demanded compensation for the destruction of his crop. “How does a farmer like me find out whether the saplings are Bt brinjal or not?” he asked mediapersons.
Earlier, farmers and experts had expressed fears of widespread contamination by GM brinjal in the state. They demanded that other brinjal fields across the state and even in neighbouring states be investigated for contamination and that the source of such seedlings be identified. For that purpose, they said all the nurseries should be inspected and a survey conducted in all villages to check the pattern of growing brinjals during the last three years. They also demanded that farmers be made aware of the ill-effects of Bt brinjal on the health of consumers as well as the environment.
Experts say the cultivation of Bt brinjal may have extended to the neighbouring states of Punjab, Himachal and Rajasthan. Unless effective steps are taken now and regular monitoring done, it would become almost impossible to contain the spread of Bt brinjal across the country. Devinder Sharma said that while these brinjals can be put in water to wash away chemicals used for the outer shine, the poison within GM-modified vegetables cannot be removed even after cutting them.
That should be enough warning for everyone.