Friday, November 13, 2009

Bt Brinjal - The way NOT to go

The basis of Genetic Manipulation (GM) technologies that allow us to make Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) lies in the common origins of life. Darwin proposed 150 years ago that there is a common origin for life. Random variations amongst individuals in a population combined with natural selection due to the constraints arising from the environment and natural resources provided the evolutionary changes for various species to arise. Human beings and the various life forms on earth were shown not to be created but to have evolved over the period of geological time.

Genetics and molecules:
Later discoveries proved the cellular, molecular and genetic basis of life. In cells the nucleic acid forms the genetic material that allows information to be encoded. The passing on of this information in the nucleic acid to the subsequent generations of cells forms the genetic basis of life. In the case of many viruses and all bacteria, fungi, plants and animals deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA provides the information. Genes are the segments of DNA that provide information. Just as we have 26 letters in the English alphabet which allows us to form various words and sentences, different sequential arrangement of the four base molecules that form DNA gives rise to variety of DNA or gene sequences which is the foundation for the biodiversity on earth. The information in the DNA sequence is translated to assemble the sequences of amino acids that make up protein molecules. The translation is possible because of the almost universal genetic code that specifies which combination of base molecules of DNA can be translated to which amino acids. The translation and assembly process then results in protein molecules, which vary depending on their amino acid composition. Different proteins perform different functions. The interactions between biological molecules are complex, not completely understood, and lead to the complexity of life. In the natural world, changes in DNA sequence can happen due to many reasons. Sexual reproduction is a major way of allowing different DNA combinations to arise due to mixing of the genes from one individual to another. Recombination involving host and parasite DNA is also a way of improving the fitness of organisms. If the DNA changes result in protein changes, they can lead to changes in the way the cell survives or functions. The accumulation of these changes can lead to changes in the organism. New organisms can then arise. They can be members of the same species with modified characteristics like the way people breed animals or make hybrids in plants. Or if the changes are large enough to differentiate the organism from its parent, they slowly tend to drift apart leading to new species being formed. Thus manipulation of DNA sequences in the natural world forms the basis of evolution and has been happening over the last 350 crore years resulting in organisms like us humans. Since the time humans developed agriculture or domesticated animals, we have been manipulating organisms. Breeding is a classic example of such manipulation. Now humans in the last 50 years have been able to a limited extent to learn the science behind the process at a molecular level and develop technologies to perform genetic manipulations at a molecular level. Current molecular based GM technologies are more precise, specific than breeding or making hybrids. The molecule-based technologies also help cross the species barrier and allow us to take genes from say a bacterium and put it in a plant. The genetic manipulation technologies or biotechnologies or recombinant DNA technologies are still in its infancy. Other technologies like nuclear technology or space technology is better controlled scientifically because the physics of the situations are fairly well understood. Thus one can predict fairly accurately the damage a nuclear bomb can cause or the extent to which a spacecraft can travel. The main dangers of nuclear technologies arise from socio-political-economic reasons. The problems are mitigated to a certain extent by the lack of wide spread applications and large scale commercial prospects. In the case of genetic manipulation technologies, there are problems that can arise from our lack of biological understanding, the complex and changing nature of biology and also socio-political-economic reasons. The situation is compounded in an atmosphere of unregulated privatization considering the enormous potential of biological applications and their huge commercial benefits.

Bt technology
GM technologies, recombinant DNA technologies are as varied as the molecules and life forms that are present. They can be applied to bacteria, plants or animals. Their use can be in medicine, agriculture, environmental control, forensics etc. In the case of these technologies applied to plants many applications have been developed. They can be used to increase the yield of a given plant, develop plants that are resistant to a given disease, use plants to produce specific proteins for therapeutic or medical purposes, develop plants that can be used for making edible vaccines etc. Bt technology is one technology, which uses the capability evolved in Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt is primarily a soil bacterium, but also occurs naturally in the gut of caterpillars of various types of moths and butterflies as well as on the dark surface of plants. B. thuringiensis was discovered 1901 in Japan by Ishiwata and 1911 in Germany by Ernst Berliner. Upon sporulation, Bt produces proteinaceous crystal proteins that are encoded by cry genes that exist in plasmids (an extra-chromosomal material) in the bacteria. The spores and bacteria have been used as pesticide since 1920s. Because of their specificity, these pesticides are regarded as environmentally friendly, with little or no effect on humans, wildlife, pollinators, and most other beneficial insects. Bacillus thuringiensis serovar israelensis, a strain of B. thuringiensis is widely used as a larvicide against mosquito larvae, where it is also considered an environmentally friendly method of mosquito control.
In Bt technology the gene that produces the cry protein toxic to a class of insect (lepidopteran) can be taken from the bacterium that harbors it and inserted into a plant (cotton, brinjal, potato, tomato, rice etc) so that the desired plant part (leaf, fruit etc) can now produce the toxin protein. The cry protein when ingested by the insect gets activated at the pH of the gut of the insect. The protein is inserted into the membrane of the cells that line the gut and causes those cells to die eventually leading to the death of the insect. Some cry proteins are effective against certain bollworms, some are effective against mosquito larvae etc. For each crop the most damaging pest has been targeted, as for example, the bollworms of cotton, the stem borers of rice and corn and the stem and fruit borers of aubergine (brinjal, egg plant). The objective is that, while the Bt proteins take care of the major pests, the rest can be controlled by conventional pest management practices. The choice of Bt genes depends upon the crop and the targeted pest, as most of the Bt toxins are insect group specific. For example, the proteins encoded by the genes Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab control the cotton bollworms, Cry1Ab controls corn borer, Cry3Ab controls Colarado potato beetle and Cry3Bb controls corn rootworm. The Belgian company Plant Genetic Systems was the first company (in 1985) to develop genetically engineered (tobacco) plants with insect tolerance by expressing cry genes from B. thuringiensis.
A gene construct (or a cassette) consisting of the chosen Bt gene is made, along with other molecular components needed for its expression in the transgenic crop variety. The construct consists of sequences of nucleotides, a) to initiate the expression of the selected gene, b) to promote such expression, c) the actual sequence for the gene and d) a nucleotide sequence to signal the completion of the process of expression. This construct is then incorporated into the tissue of a (chosen primary) variety of the crop, and this is called an event. A large number of plants are developed from the event, through micropropagation (tissue culture) for agronomic and biosecurity evaluation in a green house. Since this primary variety may not be suitable for cultivation in all countries or even in different regions in the same country, the event has to be transferred into the genetic component of other varieties suitable for cultivation in different parts of the world. For example, the event MON 531, containing the Cry1Ac gene, was used to develop the Bt cotton variety of Coker 312, which is not suitable for cultivation in India. The chosen Indian regional varieties were repeatedly backcrossed with Bt Coker 312 to develop different Bt cotton varieties. All Bt cotton varieties containing Cry1Ac gene and developed from MON 531 are marketed under the trade name Bollgard I. In India there are now about 140 Bt cotton varieties permitted for commercial cultivation in different parts of the country and most of them are Bollgard I varieties as they were developed from MON 531 and contain Cry1Ac gene, marketed by several seed companies under license from Monsanto and its partner Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco). The commercial prospects of this technology are enormous. Monsanto had the first Bt related patent in 1984. There are now more than 5000 patents related to Bt transgenics and also controversies such as the one between DOW chemicals and Monsanto over the rights of the patents. In 2005, Dow Chemicals won rights over the Bt technology. In that year alone the as per the statistics of US Agriculture Dept 290 lakh acres of Bt corn and 70 lakh acres of Bt cotton were planted. Most of the seed sales for these came from Monsanto.

Bt cotton
In 1996 Monsanto, introduced two varieties of genetically engineered cotton for the first time in U.S. One was a Roundup (a Monsanto manufactured herbicide glyphosate) resistant variety and the other named 'Bollgard' contained a Bt gene and was resistant to bollworms. In 1994 in India, the application for transgenic Bt cottonseed import was considered by the committee set up then by the Dept of Biotechnology, Govt of India. The permit was received in 1995 for import of 100g Bt cotton seed of Coke 312 from Monsanto. In 1996, the seeds were imported and green house trials were initiated. Back crossing into elite parental lines for breeding were carried out. Limited field trials in 6 locations were done to assess pollen escape. In 1998 toxicological studies and allergenicity studies were done. In 1998/1999 multi centric research trials in around 50 locations were done to assess efficacy of Bt gene in indian germplasm. In 2000/2001 large scale trials in around 100 hectares were done, followed by hybrid seed production and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) trials in around 17 locations. In April 2002, three varieties of Bt cotton hybrids promoted by Mahyco-Monsanto (Mech 12 Bt, Mech 162 Bt, Mech 184 Bt) were approved for commercialisation in 6 states of India ( Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu). The performance of the varieties was not consistent in all the six states in terms of yield and economic returns. Moreover, there have been wide differences between the results obtained by studies sponsored by the company, independent researchers and NGOs. Cases of farmer suicides, arising from cost of cultivation pushing the farmers into debt, across parts of India since the mid-2000s have intensified the debate regarding the success of Bt cotton. In 2006, most cotton-growing states in the country issued an order to force seed manufacturer Monsanto's licensees to sell its products at less than half the prevailing price. Andhra Pradesh initially fixed the price of the 45-gramme packets of Bt cottonseeds at Rs 750 for the planting season instead of the prevailing rate of Rs 1,800.
Andhra Pradesh had first raised the price issue during the last planting season, telling Monsanto's licensee - Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech - and sub-licensees that they would have to compensate farmers for crop losses, because the charges for the seeds were exorbitant in comparison to international prices. Approximately, for instance, the price of Bt seeds in China was less than a third that in India. The main reason for the skew in prices was that Monsanto charges its Indian licensees a ‘trait value' (another name for royalty) much in excess of international standards — for instance, in China it charges Rs 40 for 450 grams as compared to Rs 1,250 in India. The trait charge arises because though Monsanto held the patent in US, China it was not valid in India since patenting of life forms was not valid in India, Monsanto had to charge fees to recover its research and development costs. The legality of the 'trait charge' was questioned under the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission. The agreement between Monsanto and its licensees contained restrictions in the matter of production, supply and control of seed by domestic seed companies, which allowed seed prices to be jacked up to high levels. Domestic companies were not allowed to sub-license technology given to them by Monsanto thereby reducing the number of players in the market, allowing the seed major to fix the trait value. There are competitors like JK Agrigenetics, Nath Seeds, Navbarath Seeds who have obtained the Bt technology through other sources or developed it without agreement with Monsanto. However the delay by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), that has to clear commercialisation, in giving approval to the indigenous companies on concerns over environmental issues, has proved advantageous to Monsanto. In contrast, the Chinese developed a Bt variety called guokang on the basis of pirated technology and put it in the market. Though not successful agronomically, it helped the Chinese government negotiate with Monsanto in terms of pricing and other issues. On the contrary, India has not been able to arm twist Monsanto in terms of pricing. Four companies- Jalna-based Mahyco, Salem-based Rasi Seeds, Hyderabad-based Nuziveedu seeds and New Delhi-based Pro Agro collected Rs 1,000 crore worth of trait value in the 2005-06 season for Monsanto. One district of Andhra yields Rs 18 crore in trait fees a year on an average. Subsequently Gujarat also brought in price regulation. The Bt cotton companies are of course against the whole question of regulation. There is a large illegal market in place for Bt cotton seeds due to its popularity.

Bt Brinjal
The eggplant, aubergine, or brinjal (Solanum melongena), is a plant of the family Solanaceae (also known as the nightshades) and
genus Solanum. As a nightshade, it is closely related to the tomato and potato and is native to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It has been cultivated in southern and eastern Asia since prehistory but became known to the Western world no earlier than ca. 1500 CE. The brinjal fruit is botanically classified as a berry and is extensively used in cooking as a vegetable. The fruit also causes allergies in certain cases. A study in 2008 of a sample of 741 people found that nearly 10% reported some allergic symptoms after consuming eggplant, while 1.4% showed symptoms in less than 2 hours.[ A wide range of shapes, sizes and colors are grown in India and elsewhere in Asia. Larger varieties weighing up to a kilogram grow in the region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, while smaller varieties are found elsewhere. Colors vary from white to yellow or green as well as reddish-purple and dark purple. Some cultivars have a color gradient, from white at the stem to bright pink to deep purple or even black. Green or purple cultivars in white striping also exist. Oval or elongated oval-shaped and black-skinned cultivars include Harris Special Hibush, Burpee Hybrid, Black Magic, Classic, Dusky, and Black Beauty. Slim cultivars in purple-black skin include Little Fingers, Ichiban, Pingtung Long, and Tycoon; in green skin Louisiana Long Green and Thai (Long) Green; in white skin Dourga. Traditional, white-skinned, egg-shaped cultivars include Casper and Easter Egg. Bicolored cultivars with color gradient include Rosa Bianca and Violetta di Firenze. Bicolored cultivars in striping include Listada de Gandia and Udumalapet. In some parts of India, miniature varieties (most commonly called Vengan) are popular. A particular variety of green brinjal known as Matti Gulla is grown in Matti village of Udupi district in Karnataka. Some of the public sector improved varieties include Pusa Kranthi, Pusa Purple Cluster, Syamala. Hybrids include Arka Navneet, Utarsha etc. Brinjal also figures in wide variety of dishes cooked all over the country, so much so it is referred to as 'The King of Vegetables'. The flowers can be both self-pollinated or cross-pollinated. The worldwide production of Brinjal comes mainly from China, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey. In India around 5 lakh hectares are grown. The total production of brinjal is around 82 lakh metric tonnes. It is mainly grown in small plots as a cash crop by farmers. The main growing areas are Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam and West Bengal.
Bt brinjal unlike the corn and cotton counterparts, which are not directly in the food chain, was not commercialised in the US first, though substantial cultivation takes place in state of New Jersey, USA. Moreover, though Monsanto has a strong presence in China, which is the largest producer of brinjal, Bt brinjal was not introduced there. The introduction of Bt Brinjal, the first GM food crop to be commercialised, was taken up only in India. The transformation work on Bt Brinjal started in 2000. Biosafety tests like pollen flow studies, acute oral toxicity were taken up in 2002. In 2004, after two years of evaluation, multi-location trials were conducted in 11 locations with five hybrids. Subsequently three more hybrids were assessed by the company and Indian Council of Agricultural Research in 2005 in 11 centres. Mahyco has sub licensed the technology as part of the USAID supported, Cornell University led consortium of public and private sector institutions project to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, The University of Agricultural Sciences, Dhrwad and the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varnasi. This transfer of technology was apparently free of cost. The public sector institutes were allowed to develop, breed and distribute their own Bt brinjal varieties on a cost-to-cost basis. In addition to Mahyco, the National Research Centre for Biotechnology at the Indian Institute of Agricultural Research had taken up agronomic trials in a controlled environment in 1998 - 2001. In 2003, they conducted field trials in five locations. Bejo Sheetal a company in Maharashtra is also working on Bt Brinjal. with the use of Cry1Ab gene for Bt Brinjal. In 2006 the Monsanto-Mahyco trials data was submitted to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Eight Bt brinjal hybrids were approved for large scale field trials. In 2008-09 GEAC approved the experimental seed production of seven Bt Brinjal hybrids on 0.1 acre per hybrid. In Oct 2009, the GEAC cleared the Bt brinjal for commercialisation. Due to pressure from various groups, the Union environment minister has announced that a series of public consultations will be held before finalising the decision on the release.

Possible usefulness
The Bt Brinjal will help control the pest - shoot and fruit borer. However, the damage caused is estimated is around 50%. This is an aggregate from various varieties of brinjal and types of the pest. The effect of Bt brinjal is also expected to reduce the use of pesticide, which is the reason the pesticide lobby is against the Bt brinjal introduction. The actual figures for the pest control and the reduction of pesticide could be lower going by the experiences from Bt corn, in the US, and Bt cotton, in India.

Worrisome factors
The loss of biodiversity in the growth of brinjal will be seen as farmers will tend to cultivate only the hybrids that are Bt brinjal. This mono cultivation could lead to overall problems as the variation in a species is essential for its robustness and interaction with other organisms. This problem cannot be overcome by any GM technology. The control of seeds used by the farmers will rest with the private sector either directly or indirectly. This could be overcome by either nationalising the entire GM effort or the government taking over the entire seed production and distribution. Over time there will be resistance development in the insects as has been shown with other crops. The resistance development can be reduced by providing a sufficiently large refuge of non-GM crops around the GM fields. The presence of non-GM crops around GM crops will help dilute the number of pests that develop resistance initially. But this is just a matter of time. However, even this becomes impractical in Indian conditions where the cultivation is mostly by small farmers and the fields cannot be sufficiently separated. Gene flow to neighbouring crops and weeds has been documented. In the case of weeds, the inadvertent pest control will lead to greater weed growth as has been documented in other Bt applications. Brinjal is capable of both self and cross pollination. The rates of natural cross pollination vary depending on the genotype, location and insect activity. Wild and weedy plants, that are close relatives or have some degree of cross-compatibility with these brinjal varieties are capable of getting affected. These will act as reservoir and can lead to contamination. GM crops require a strict regulation of crop rotation, with the GM fields not being used for growing other crops in order to prevent contamination. The lack of regulation enforcement and corruption in our system will ensure rampant mixing of GM and non GM food crops.
The small farmers who are the major growers of brinjal will be affected by the regulations, the seed price control and any backlash from the anti GM food campaign.

Red herrings
Brinjal itself possess some amount of allergenic value. Individuals who are atopic (genetically predisposed to hypersensitivity, such as hay fever) are more likely to have a reaction to eggplant, which may be due to the fact that eggplant is high in histamines. A few proteins and at least one secondary metabolite have been identified as potential allergens. Cooking eggplant thoroughly seems to preclude reactions in some individuals, but at least one of the allergenic proteins survives the cooking process. The introduction of Bt cry protein is unlikely to add to the existing load. Introduction of other proteins or genes due to contaminating bacteria, fungi are more normally itself. Food security is often given as a reason for many GM technologies. This is a misleading proposition as the cause of food insecurity can be traced to inequalities in distribution rather than only production capabilities.
Labelling of GM and non-GM food is really a sidetracking of the main problem. Also, in our marketing system, labeling of food products is a laughable matter. Providing consumer choice is but a way of commercialization. Moreover, the issue is not about choice but about livelihood, sustainability and environmental friendliness.

Who benefits
The major beneficiary of producing vegetables of uniformly good characteristics is the packaging and retailing industry. The rise of food retailing as a major industry is aided by the GM technology applied to food. Large farmers will be the major beneficiaries of the Bt brinal technology since the technology is aimed at scaling up of production and assumes large areas of land available for providing buffer zones. Retail chains and food production companies will benefit as products can be made in one place and shipped without fear of having insects or deterioration of quality over long distances. This provides a lucrative marketing potential to big players.

Do we need Bt brinjal?
Bt. Brinjal is a classic case of lack of involvement of people in the planning process of development and use of technology. The production of pest resistant brinjals through appropriate hybrids will be more sustainable than the Bt technology. Independent trials have been documented to show that in relation to Bt brinjal yields, pest management by practicing Integrated pest management and organic farmers are able to give comparable average yields over different regions and time periods.

What is needed?
GM technology is better aimed at non-food crops produced in possible closed green houses. Rational approaches that take into account the nature of farming, the presence of larger amount of biodiversity in tropical countries such as ours need to be adopted.
A support system for small and marginal farmers is needed from the Government in order to promote, spread and practice alternative integrated pest management systems.
A people and nature friendly policy and implementation mechanism is needed for determining GM technology based applications in food crops. What can be done?
Transgenic research applications should be controlled and directed like the nuclear and space technologies. Nuclear and space research applications are controlled and directed by the Dept of Atomic Research and Dept of Space, respectively for security reasons. There are no private players in this area who have direct field applications in the country. ISRO makes use of indigenous technology and encourages private and public sector industries to develop required technologies. Similarly in the case of GM technology in applications to food crops, the threat of security though not apparent is implicitly greater. Moreover, the interests of the small farmers can be protected only through the state intervention in terms of applications of GM technology. Controlled factories for production of molecules of interest for therapeutic or other purposes will be good applications of GM technology. The Precautionary principle as enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol of which India is a signatory should be taken into consideration. This principle gives the option to countries to refuse the adoption of a technology whose negative impacts are not yet known in science. It also incorporates measures to safeguard them from being used as a dumping ground for untested, new technology. Other provisions also exist to protect the interests of developing countries. In the case of Bt technology, the technology is being directed towards Asia and Africa since there has been a saturation and limitation of application in the USA and Europe. Awareness and debate are essential to prevent the use of fear as a factor to limit the arbitrary and unwanted uses of GM technology. The use of fear by the NGOs and media merely drives people towards traditionalism and anti-science and anti-technology positions.

Which is the way to go?

Brinjal is a native fruit of Indian region. There are a large number of varieties that are grown in every region. It is vegetable that is used by the poor and the rich. The vegetable is grown more by small and marginal farmers, though the cumulative produce puts India in the second position of production. The damage by insects like the fruit and shoot borer does occur but the susceptibility varies depending on the strain of the insect and the brinjal variety. Moreover, Bt technology does not provide a life time guarantee for the targeted pest control. In the game of evolution, the effect will last as long as it takes for the insect to develop a resistance mechanism. The small farmer sells the vegetable in the local or nearby mandi or santhai. There is no requirement of standard size. The products are meant for local distribution not for transport across large distances and sale in food outlets. Food retailers, national and international, who enter this market require fairly uniform sizes and insect free produce for large scale shipping.
For food retailers, Bt brinjal holds great promise.
For small and regional farmers the increased seed costs, the possibility of weeds getting insect tolerant leading to excess growth of weeds, the restrictions on crop growing in fields that were used for growing GM crops, the potential for harassment in the name of regulation, the difficulty in meeting buffering zone requirements makes Bt brinjal a dual edged sword capable of killing them depending on the vagaries of the climatic conditions.
For the elite and affluent middle class urban consumer who buys the produce from the malls, Bt brinjal though costlier would mean dependable and standardized vegetables.
For the poor and lower middle class urban and rural consumer Bt brinjal would mean higher costs and reduced access to the local varieties.
Brinjal being open to self and cross pollination, for the biodiversity of the country, commercialization of Bt brinjal could be a potential disaster especially given the variety of Solanaceae family that are grown in our region.
So does it mean GM technologies such as Bt technology should be abandoned? There is no way to club all GM technologies. They are varied. If intelligently and conscientiously researched and adopted, they may prove beneficial.
As with any technology, utilizations can be in a people and nature friendly. Similarly as for any technology, in fact more so with GM technology applications in agriculture and medicine, unregulated use that will help increase the divide between the have and the have-nots, that will be harmful to the environment in the long run. How Bt technology is utilized and how it is regulated will make a major difference. As it stands, Bt brinjal commercialization will benefit only the large farmers, food retail behemoths and will slowly erode the biodiversity. In the interests of providing a sustainable livelihood for all Bt brinjal should not be commercialized. The case of Bt cotton has shown that once introduced restrictions or regulations are difficult to implement.


Sej said...


Nice to have your post on this subject. I am a volunteer for the campaign against unlawful entry of GM food (I am no lab rat). We are in process of collecting independent voices, mainly on technological aspects for Bt Brinjal from people like you.

Will you be okay, if we publish your blog link on Also can you please give me your professional background?

Dr Shyamala Pillai Shah said...

Hi I enjoyed your article immensely ... please do read my own article (Bt Brinjal - The terrifying....)on the same topic.. thanks for the detailed information.