The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has deferred a decision on granting permission to Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) to undertake large-scale trials and seed production of its controversial transgenic Bt brinjal hybrids.
Meanwhile, the GEAC has constituted an expert committee to look into the views given by various NGOs on the pros and cons of introducing genetically modified (GM) brinjal. The NGOs have been given time till July 15 to submit their comments, which will be incorporated in the committees recommendations to the GEAC.
Mahycos GM brinjal hybrids (MHB-4, 9, 10, 80, 99, 11, 39 and 112) basically incorporate a foreign gene, cry1Ac, derived from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt.
This gene synthesises a protein toxic to Leucinodes orbanalis (fruit and shoot borer), the most destructive insect pest affecting brinjal. A small larva, it bores the shoots of the plant and feeds on the young and maturing fruit, making it inedible and unfit for the market.
"Currently, farmers use around 1.4 kg of pesticides per hectare in brinjal, which is way higher than, say, 200 g for paddy. This is a 150-180 day crop, in which picking starts after 60 days. There are about 20 pickings during the crops lifetime and before each of these, the farmer resorts to 2-3 sprays. Thus, he ends up spraying anywhere from 20 to 60 times," said Dr Usha Barwale Zehr, Joint Director of Research, Mahyco.
According to Dr S.A. Patil, Vice-Chancellor, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, farmers spend between Rs 16,000 and Rs 25,000 per hectare on pesticides for brinjal, comparing with Rs 8,000-20,000 in cotton. At an average yield of 40 tonnes and realisation of Rs 2.5-3 a kg, pesticides end up consuming around 20 per cent of their income from brinjal.
"We have demonstrated 80 per cent reduction in pesticide consumption through Bt brinjal. Farmers will continue to spray, but only against aphids, jassids, and other non-target pests," said Dr Zehr. Besides promising savings to farmers, Bt brinjal will also benefit consumers. "The Bt protein is specific only to the target pest and there are enough toxicology studies showing that it has no impact on humans. On the contrary, by reducing pesticide sprays, it makes brinjal safer to consume," she added.
In 2004, the country is estimated to have produced 8.2 million tonnes of brinjal on 5.1 lakh hectares. If the GEAC clearance comes through, Mahyco says it would be able to commercially launch the worlds first Bt brinjal in 2007.