Farmers in India grow more than 4,000 varieties of eggplant, making it one of South Asia’s most important staple vegetables. According to the BBC, Indian farmers produce more eggplant than anywhere in the world.
Late last year, the government-controlled Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved the commercial cultivation of a genetically modified variety of eggplant, called Bt brinjal, that was engineered to be resistant to some of the pests that plague eggplant crops. Bt brinjal would have been the first ever GM crop approved for widespread human consumption (small amounts of GM papayas are grown in Hawaii).
But farmers and activists across India registered their disapproval and, due to the widespread opposition, Environment Minister Jairam Remesh put the cultivation of Bt brinjal on hold indefinitely.
“Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach,” Mr Ramesh said.
Bt brinjal had been undergoing field tests conducted by its inventors and owners for only one year. The seeds are owned by Mahyco, an Indian company that is partially owned by Monsanto, owner of the gene technology used in the Bt crops.
Remesh added that allowing companies to conduct their own tests “does raise legitimate doubts on the reliability of the tests,” and said the moratorium would be extended until independent studies establish the crop’s safety.
Supporters of the technology will say that farmers need Bt brinjal to prevent famine caused by climate change and lessen the environmental impact of pesticide use. The logic goes that because climate change makes eggplant more vulnerable to pests, pest resistant Bt brinjal can raise yields by reducing crop failure, while also requiring fewer pesticides.
According to Bhagirath Choudhary, head of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the agency that approved the commercialization of Bt brinjal in October, “Our experience with Bt cotton has showed the technology has benefited the farmer, the consumer and the states’ economies. We have a solid case in Bt cotton, with higher yields, double the output and less use of insecticide.”
History has shown that this isn’t true. GM seeds lessen farmer’s choices, making them beholden and in debt to the seed companies, take the control of the food supply out of the hands of farmers and put it into the hands of industry, and threaten bio-diversity, the very best tool in the prevention of famine. GM crops over time often require ever-larger amounts of pesticides, as the pests develop resistance, or different pests attack the crop. So while GM crops may temporarily increase yields and profits for farmers, it has never been proven to be sustainable over time, especially when you’re talking about undercapitalized smaller farmers.
Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First, The Institute for Food and Development Policy, said “Growing GMO eggplant in India is unnecessary, untested for safety, and could destroy the livelihoods of many small-scale Indian farmers.”
According to Reuters, GM seeds would likely cost three times the price of regular seeds, and they cannot be saved from season to season so farmers would have to continue to buy the seeds from the seed company each year.
Engineering a crop to withstand a very specific threat (in this case, pests) is dangerous business because you court failure caused by other threats, as this article about farmer suicides and the diseases that Bt cotton is especially vulnerable to outlines.
While yields may be higher initially, farmers often end up deeply in debt due to crop failures and inability to plant non-gmo varieties. Seven years after Bt cotton was approved in India in 2002, Bt cotton is now 80% of total cotton acreage planted, leaving farmers with few other choices in the seed marketplace, as this video shows:
In addition to the unproven yields, expense, and unstudied human health effects, imagine the destruction of the culinary and cultural legacy represented by the loss of many of those 4,000 varieties of eggplant.
This important development is a turning point for both food sovereignty activists and the developers of GM crops. It indicates that in India today, the people have the power to influence at least some within their government, serving as an inspiring example to people everywhere fighting for the control of their own food supply. For Monsanto and other developers of GM crops, the independent tests that will be required to assure the safety of this particular GM food crop will influence every new development. This is a story to watch closely.