I support Bt brinjal

Print edition : March 12, 2010
in Bangalore

G. Padmanabhan:"I feel indigenously developed genes should be used.-MAHESH HARILAL

Professor Govindarajan Padmanabhan, former Director of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), is currently Professor of Biochemistry there. A well-known biotechnologist, he has been teaching at the IISc since 1969. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1991 and the Padma Bhushan in 2004. He is a member of Central government research bodies such as the Department of Biotechnology, the Department of Science and Technology, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Indian Council of Medical Research. He has guided 45 PhDs and has authored more than 140 scientific papers. Experts from an interview:

Why do you endorse the introduction of Bt brinjal in India?

I support Bt brinjal because I believe it is a gateway for other genetically modified (GM) crops like GM rice. All the conventional approaches to growing food crops have been there organic farming, integrated pest management, new hybrids but Indias grain production is 200 plus million tonnes. It has not changed much, while population is continuously increasing. If you look at it from that perspective, you need something that is dramatic, something that is a new technology, which I believe GM technology can provide. If we really want a quantum increase in food production, I feel we need GM technology.

Critics of GM crops say that we have conventional technology, but why has not there been an increase in food production? A second green revolution, which means introduction of GM food crops, is needed in this country. China has approved the commercialisation of Bt rice. All these debates have gone on there also, but decisions are taken there as well.

Can this quantum leap be achieved with GM crops?

I believe so. There are certain things we need to be clear about. First, Bt is protection against pests. It does not have the inherent property to increase yield. The Bt gene is not a growth-promoting gene. If the loss by pest infestation is 20 per cent now, to that extent you will get 20 per cent more yield. Second, it is a great opportunity to increase the nutritive quality of the crop. The third application in India is what we call abiotic stress, which means local agricultural conditions such as low rainfall and saline soil. GM crops can be grown in such degraded soil as well. When there is a very low rainfall, you lose your crop, but there are genes available that can give you 50 per cent yield. I do not see any other technology that can provide these advantages.

How would you respond to the criticism that the introduction of Bt Brinjal will affect biodiversity?

I do not buy this argument at all. Gene flow has always taken place in nature. Currently, there are strict laws which say that gene flow must be measured. It must be tested whether the Bt gene has gone into the target organism, non-target organism or some other plant. There are more than 2,000 varieties of brinjal. How did these varieties evolve in nature? It is because of gene changes.

Ever since man started cultivating, farmers have been crossing crops. For example, farmers will cross a wild-rice variety with a local-rice variety because the wild rice has resistant characters and those characters will get into the rice. In nature, horizontal and vertical transmission of genes has always taken place, so how do critics say that by introducing two Bt genes, you are going to affect biodiversity. Hundreds of genes have already been exchanged and nature knows how to balance these kinds of things. The only thing that we need to ensure is whether the Bt gene is safe. Is the Bt gene going to destroy all other genes or is it unsafe to the humans and animals who are going to consume it?

Are you sceptical of the safety of the Bt gene?

This is a scientific question, but to answer simply, the Bt gene product cannot be toxic in humans or animals because it gets degraded in the stomach of humans and animals, while it does not get degraded in the pest. Regulation still demands that you test it on animals. All these tests have been done, but what opponents say is that this is not adequate.

Somebody says that these tests should be done for a lifetime. There is no logic in asking for such things, knowing that this protein that the Bt gene gives rise to gets degraded. A very similar gene to what we are planning to introduce in India has been present in Bt corn in the United States, and people have been consuming Bt corn for more than 10 years.

In actual fields, there is evidence that Bt corn has been used as an animal feed and all these animals have been fed for more than 10 years now. And there is no really authenticated report that any problem has arisen. When such massive evidence exists, why are we opposing Bt crops so strongly?

In spite of all this, what the government should do is to permit limited release of Bt seeds. Take three progressive farmers in five States 15 farmers and five different locales geographically and give them seeds. The Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) should only be supplying the seeds and the entire process should be monitored by the government machinery. Then let the production be observed for two seasons and the claims of decrease in pesticide spray be examined. If it does not work, farmers will throw it away.

How would you respond to the claims of P.M. Bhargava, the noted biotechnologist and Supreme Court nominee in the GEAC? He has stated that a majority of the necessary biosafety tests were skipped before the clearance was given.

I have gone through all the reports and they (Expert Committee 1 and Expert Committee 2) have done most of the experiments that are required, but Bhargava was suggesting some new modern experiments should be conducted which are not meaningful because it pertains to how the genes will change. There was a paper some time back that said that if you scratch a plant its gene sequence will change. So if you put a couple of Bt genes, the plant will respond. This does not mean that it is harmful. So, I do not see much validity in any of those allegations.

Has the Indian experience with Bt cotton been reassuring enough to introduce Bt brinjal now? There are reports linking farmers suicides with the introduction of Bt cotton.

Overall, it has been a very good experience. There is a report available on Bt cotton generated by the Asia-Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology (APCOAB) in 2009, which clearly documents all the published data on the Indian experience of Bt cotton. There is easily 50 to 80 per cent increase in yield. There might have been pockets where it has failed, but the problem is when it fails, people do not see that they might have been cheated and they might not be using Bt seeds. There are middlemen who cheat farmers. I have seen reports that say that Bt seeds do not germinate, which are completely false as there is nothing in the Bt seeds that prevents germination. Therefore, if it does not germinate it is because of something else. It has nothing to do with Bt.

My faith in Bt in the overall report is very, very positive. You cannot blame Bt cotton for farmers suicides. There are local conditions of farmers, including indebtedness, and there are other issues of agriculture like storage and distribution that need to be sorted out. Many of these studies have been done by institutes like the Indian Institute for Vegetable Research based in Varanasi. It is not just a company that is involved in these tests the Tamilnadu Agricultural University and the Dharwad Agricultural University are involved. There are respected agricultural scientists who are involved in these tests.

What is the role of the multinational agricultural companies in this and what effect does it have on our own agricultural scientists?

Indian scientists have indigenously developed genes ready to be used and they are the ones who are affected by this preference for seeds developed by foreign companies. We do not need Monsanto any more for this country. I feel that these indigenously developed genes should be used. All this agitation against the Bt brinjal is affecting Indian research and no one else.

Once our public sector starts using its own products, costs will come down. Somebody should advise the government. Agricultural companies, both foreign and Indian, will only make hybrids, which can only be used for one generation. A farmer cannot store the seeds. Instead of this, you should create a variety by which the gene is permanent and seeds are generated. Once we do this, we do not need to pay any royalty to Monsanto.

What sort of institute do you envisage for overseeing future introductions of GM products in Indian agriculture?

Right now, the GEAC is the body that is concerned with this and its purview only extends to approving the release. There is talk of establishing a national authority, but we need a regulatory body like the Food and Drug Administration that exists in the U.S., which supervises and observes the field experience of GM crops for five years once the crop is commercialised. It should be an autonomous body with technical competence and should have the authority to stop any GM crop that does not meet certain standards.

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