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Poison In Your Stomach:
Genetically Modified Brinjal
(Egg Plants or Aubergines)

By Devinder Sharma

04September, 08

After experimenting with rats, goats, sheep and cows, it is now the turn of Indian people. In a few months from now, if the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India has its way, the first genetically modified food crop – Bt Brinjal – will be on your table.

Whether it is the laboratory rats or higher mammals, the animal kingdom has been more discerning – possibly owing to a sixth instinct which human beings sadly lack. There is otherwise no explanation for why laboratory rats, for instance, should always be spurning GM foods. And when force fed, rats have invariably developed tumours and deformed body organs, including kidneys and livers, as well as serious diseases and ailments.

We have heard repeatedly of the death of sheep and goats when left to graze in the Bt cotton fields of India. First it was reported from Andhra Pradesh, and now newspaper reports point to the south-Indian state of Orissa. However, not much is public about how the cattle react. Several farmers in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana have told me that cows avoid the Bt cotton fields when left to openly graze.

The Bt gene that has been infused in Bt cotton (or Bt corn on which most of the laboratory rat studies have been conducted) is no different from the same gene drawn from a soil bacterium – scientifically called Bt – that is now being incorporated in Brinjal. This gene releases a toxin within the plant that kills fruit-and-shoot borer insects. The Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), which is spearheading research on Bt Brinjal, claims that the genetically-modified Brinjal is safe for human consumption.

I have never been placated by the safety claims made by these companies. For several decades now we were told that cigarette smoking wasn’t harmful to human health, that chemical pesticides were completely safe, and that white sugar poses no danger to the human body. These are not the only products that received the safety certificate - the list is endless. And yet decades later, after inflicting a heavy human cost the world over, most of these products are being banned or phased out. Long since sugar-based food products hit the market and were vouched safe, diabetes has suddenly assumed epidemic proportions.

Diabetes is a case in point: notwithstanding that the disease is growing at an alarming scale, the disappearance of the traditionally-cultivated Brinjal from the market will surely take away one of the simple home remedies and widely-practiced dietary solutions to combating the Type-2 diabetes. I too suffer from Type-2 diabetes, and therefore find it appalling that no scientific organisation, including the GEAC, is coming clean on what the genetically modified Brinjal will mean for people like me.

What about diabetic mommies? Pregnant women are increasingly becoming prone to Gestational diabetes -- a temporary form of diabetes. In recent years, the number of affected women who have crossed-over to full-blown diabetes is increasing – almost 25 percent suffer from Type-2 diabetes within 15 years. Whatever the safety claims might say, the fact remains that no medical studies have been conducted to show that the therapeutic properties in a normal Brinjal will not change when the fruit is genetically modified.

Even if you are not a diabetic, do not believe that you are safe. So far you have been made to believe that by a proper washing of the Brinjal veggies you could get rid of the harmful pesticide residues. That may not hold true anymore. You will not be able to wash the toxins once the Bt Brinjal arrives in your kitchen. And no, I am not talking of the pesticide coating on the outer skin. The toxin will now be within the Bt Brinjal.

If you don’t believe me, let us listen to Prof Dave Schubert of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California: “The Bt toxin is 1000 times more concentrated than in Bt sprays, which do not themselves have a history of safe use.” In other words, what Dr Schubert says is that genetically modified Bt plants, and that includes Bt Brinjal, carry a toxin that is a thousand times more potent than what is used to kill insects. Strains of Bt have been used as sprays to control harmful insets. Spine chilling, isn’t it?

The problem is that once Bt Brinjal enters the market, there is no way you can distinguish it from the normal ones. Your vegetable vendor will never be able to sell you the normal Brinjal that you are so used to buying. Moreover, once the genie is out, there is no way to call it back. To make matters worse, the GEAC has given permission to conduct multi-location trials on Karnataka’s famed traditional Brinjal varieties – Udupi Gulla. Cultivated for its special taste and unique flavour in the Udupi district of Karnataka, these strains are tied in such strong socio-cultural traditions that even today the Gulla Brinjal variety is offered to Lord Krishna on festive paryaya ceremonies.

Tracing out the antiquity of the cultivation and use of Brinjal in India, Ramesh Bhat of the Centre for Science, Society and Culture, Hyderabad, writes in a detailed paper in the journal Asian Agri-History that Gulla varieties (especially Mattu Gulla) are a perfect example of ‘plant-God-science’ relationship. “The example of Mattu Gulla shows how local farmers can choose a variety that meets their local needs and preferences, and is best suited to their specific local ecosystems. The practices adopted by farmers of Udupi have a scientific basis – both traditional and modern.”

Realising the uniqueness of the Mattu Gulla Brinjal, the Karnataka State Department of Horticulture is trying to preserve the genetic wealth by seeking a geographical indication on the Gulla strains. Ironically, the same variety for which GI is being sought by the Karnataka government is now ready for genetic plunder. The GVK University of Agricultural Science and Technology, Bangalore, is trying to introduce a Bt gene into the Gulla strains, thereby contaminating the genetic make-up of the traditional variety. The uniqueness of the Gulla varieties, preserved for over four thousand years by local farmers, awaits erosion at the hands of agricultural biotechnologists.

Why worry about this Bt Brinjal, some might ask. Isn’t it necessary for improving production and productivity? First of all, let me assure you that there is no shortage of Brinjal. Nor does Bt Brinjal increase productivity and production. But what Bt Brinjal does for sure is bring India’s first genetically altered food crop directly onto your dining table. It is time we all wake up before it is too late.

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst.

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