Modified aubergines could transform farming in India

作者:京獍帱    发布时间:2019-03-29 12:13:19    

By Fred Pearce (Image: Vivek Prakash/Reuters) STAND by your bhajis. The humble aubergine – you might call it eggplant or brinjal – may be about to unlock a food revolution across Asia. It is a revolution that could dramatically raise yields of staple foods while cutting farmers’ deaths from pesticide spraying. And it could be coming to a curry house near you. I’m in New Delhi to hear from Indian scientists about what’s in store. Many believe their government is preparing to abandon a four-year moratorium on trials of a genetically modified form of one of south Asia’s favourite vegetables, which could rapidly take over from non-GM varieties. Since science-friendly Narendra Modi swept to power in India’s elections in May, the government’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has been reactivated. If genetically modified aubergines get the green light, they would join a select number of modified plants, including papayas and squashes, that are grown primarily for human consumption. GM soya beans and maize are in the human food chain, but they are mainly grown for animals. The modified aubergine in question is known as Bt brinjal, and contains a gene taken from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. The gene produces a toxin that kills the vegetable’s main pest, the larvae of the fruit and shoot borer moth, and was first promoted by seed giant Monsanto for protecting cotton against bollworm. The company agreed to donate the gene free for brinjal. Bangladesh is leading the race to commercialise Bt brinjal. Next month, it will be planted in nationwide trials in fields, and sold in markets. Indian scientists hope to follow soon. “Policy-makers sometimes find it hard to understand GM technology and its importance,” says S.R. Rao, who helps vet GM trials at the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology. But he and others here believe the government will take it up. An attraction for farmers is that they are permitted to propagate Bt brinjal using their own seeds, which isn’t the case with many modified crops (particularly Bt cotton), which are owned by biotech firms. “Bt brinjal has now become a powerful symbol of GM foods,” says C. Kameswara Rao, a botanist at the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education in Bangalore. “If it gets the go-ahead, other GM crops can come through.” Next to leave the lab will be a potato that is resistant to late blight, a Bt chickpea, drought-tolerant sorghum and “golden rice”, which is enriched to counter vitamin A deficiency. Brinjal bhaji is a side dish on the menus of countless Indian restaurants worldwide. But in Asia, brinjal is a staple crop, grown by poor farmers. Fending off the fruit and shoot borer requires almost daily spraying with pesticides that are dangerous and expensive. Bt brinjal promises to largely remove the need for spraying against the borer, although other pesticides will still be needed. Tests have shown that the Bt gene is harmless to humans and animals when eaten and is unlikely to threaten wild relatives of brinjal (see “In the public eye“). Its incorporation in Indian cotton cultivation has more than doubled yields. The development of Bt brinjal began in 2003 thanks to an alliance between crop scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Monsanto and Indian biotech firm Mahyco, and the US government’s aid agency USAID. “We looked for crops with problems that couldn’t be addressed by conventional breeding,” says Kannan Vijayaraghavan, chairman of Sathguru, an Indian company that has coordinated the project. “Brinjal had an obvious need. It was the second biggest user of pesticides after cotton, and the same Bt gene that addressed the bollworm in cotton could address the fruit and shoot borer.” Work began in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Research in India went smoothly until the GEAC, made up of scientists, decided in 2009 to defer the final decision on field trials to the government. After a series of public consultations – to which anti-GM activists brought weeping farmers to protest the safety risks – then environment minister Jairam Ramesh (pictured, above right) in 2010 imposed a moratorium, pending further tests. Instead, there was a stand-off. GEAC scientists said it would be unethical to kill animals in experiments that could reveal nothing new. Ramesh refused to sign minutes of GEAC meetings, rendering the committee inoperable. With the Indian Supreme Court also considering a petition from activists for all GM field trials to be banned, there has effectively been a freeze on planting GM crops outside the lab. The political tide is now turning. Since Modi came to power, the GEAC has been reactivated, and in July it approved field trials of 15 GM crops, including varieties of brinjal, although not, yet, Bt brinjal. The government now plans to create a new regulatory agency. “We hope the new authority will address the concerns of the public, persuade the Supreme Court that there is a proper regulatory system in place, and help get our products to market,” said one senior university scientist who helped develop Bt brinjal, speaking on condition of anonymity. But it may not be so simple. While Modi is a pro-science modernist, much of his BJP party is traditionalist. In July, a BJP farmers’ group persuaded the new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, to impose what amounts to a moratorium on lifting the moratorium. Much may depend on events in Bangladesh, where anti-GM activists have been less successful. But here too there are problems. A trial of Bt brinjal on 20 farms this year proved a PR disaster. A minister’s desire to hand over the seeds personally meant they were planted late, so many plants got bacterial wilt in the rainy season. The wilt attacked Bt brinjal and non-Bt control plants, but angry farmers nonetheless blamed the Bt gene. Their case was picked up by activists, who also spread rumours that the Bt produce was a health hazard. It didn’t help that officials handling the trials failed to enforce a rule from biosafety regulators that Bt brinjal sold in markets should be labelled. Provided things go better in trials starting in October, “we expect within two or three years, that Bt brinjal will be grown right across Bangladesh”, says Rafiqul Islam Mondal, director-general of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute. The same could happen in the Philippines, where the Supreme Court is set to review a ban on field testing of Bt brinjal imposed last year. The ban cited “scientific uncertainty” about its safety, following representations from Greenpeace. Much of the suspicion about GM food crops in Asia concerns the role of foreign corporations, rather than fear of the crops themselves. But the irony is that here, probably more than anywhere else in the world, public-sector scientists are in charge. “Brinjal, chickpeas, groundnuts and the other crops we work on are for poor farmers, and are crops the private sector is not interested in,” says Vijayaraghavan. This opposition could mean we miss a real opportunity to give improved crops to the farmers, he says. “Brinjal and the other crops we work on are for poor farmers. The private sector is not interested in them” Many Indian crop scientists see themselves in a war against anti-GM activists. Parts of the government seem to think the same. A June report from India’s Intelligence Bureau attacked anti-GM campaigners such as Greenpeace and activist Vandana Shiva, an adviser to Prince Charles, for damaging the national economy. The government has since tried to ban activists using foreign funds for local campaigns. Others blame scientists and companies for failing to win over the public. “They are mostly responsible for the present situation,” says C. Kameswara Rao. And Ramesh wrote recently of the disdainful arrogance of scientists. But most researchers think home-grown GM crops could transform food prospects in India, where malnutrition is rife. C. Kameswara Rao says the technology could raise crop yields by a third by controlling pests, diseases and weeds, and giving greater drought tolerance. “I can’t let 100 million people go hungry if we can do a transformation in crop yields and nutrition with GMs,” says S.R. Rao. It’s something to ponder when you next tuck in to a brinjal bhaji. Opponents of Bt brinjal see three main threats: to human health from eating the genetically modified crop; genetic contamination of wild plants through cross-pollination; and, as prominent Indian anti-GM activist Vandana Shiva puts it, “a system of corporate control over seeds”. Scientists dismiss the first two. Various reviews have found little evidence of health risks from GM crops. And while south Asia is the genetic heartland of the aubergine’s wild relatives, and genetic contamination is theoretically possible, all wild relatives tested are sexually incompatible with Bt brinjal. On the risk of corporate monopoly, Indian researchers insist that their public research commitment to the needs of farmers will circumvent this. This includes producing non-hybrid crops that farmers can use to grow seeds for the next crop. The challenge, in India as well as in Western countries, is communicating these messages to the public. This article appeared in print under the headline “Step up to the plate” More on these topics:


Copyright © 网站地图