News / Health

India Debates Genetically-Modified Eggplant

Critics question safety of the pest-resistant strain

An Indian seed company has developed an eggplant that it says will dramatically reduce the need for pesticides.
An Indian seed company has developed an eggplant that it says will dramatically reduce the need for pesticides.

Multimedia

Audio

Indians call the eggplant the "king of vegetables". It's a popular ingredient in many native dishes.

But a hungry little caterpillar causes big problems for Indian eggplant farmers.

The caterpillar, called the fruit and shoot borer, eats holes in the stem of the plant, weakening it and reducing yields. It also munches on the eggplant itself, which is called a brinjal in India. Swapan Datta, deputy director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, says consumers won't buy a worm-eaten brinjal.

"Instead of a damaged brinjal, if they see a nice-looking brinjal, they buy it," he says. But he says, "They're also getting a lot of excessive residues of the pesticides."


Built-in pesticide

They're getting pesticides with their eggplant because farmers must spray dozens of times each growing season to keep the fruit and shoot borer off their vegetables. In addition to the health considerations, these applications cost farmers a lot of money.

An Indian seed company called Mahyco has developed an eggplant that it says will dramatically reduce the amount of pesticides eggplant farmers will need to spray. Mahyco's genetically modified eggplant produces a protein called Bt, which kills the caterpillar. Bt is found naturally in a soil bacterium and has been used for decades as an organic insecticide.

Safety testing

Datta's institution was among those reviewing the B-t brinjal for health and environmental safety.

"It is absolutely safe," he says. "There is no unintended effect, there is nothing indigestible left, there is no toxicological effect. So the data with the Bt brinjal and non-Bt brinjal, there is no difference."

But every new genetically modified food has generated controversy, and the Bt brinjal is no exception.

"I think it's a disaster," says Pushpa Bhargava, one of the pioneers of biotechnology in India. He recommends a different set of tests that should be performed before any genetically modified crop is released. "Only about 10 to 15 percent of these tests have been done," he says. "And even these have been done by the company applying for permission for open release. And the company's credentials are as bad as could be."

New crops, old conflicts

The company at the heart of this debate is Mahyco's partner company, the U.S.-based agribusiness giant Monsanto. Monsanto has a long history of conflicts with green groups over its chemical business, which included such controversial products as Agent Orange and DDT. Conflicts have continued as Monsanto has become a leader in crop biotechnology.

 

A U.S. food policy expert says flaws in India's regulatory system may be adding to concerns about genetically-modified eggplants.
A U.S. food policy expert says flaws in India's regulatory system may be adding to concerns about genetically-modified eggplants.


Other Bt crops, including cotton and maize produced by Monsanto and other companies, have been reviewed, approved and grown widely in the United States, Canada, Australia and parts of Europe. To date, there have been no reports of serious environmental or health problems.

But Vandana Shiva, a prominent Indian opponent of crop biotech, is not convinced that something won't come up.

"I think for decades after DDT was sprayed you [heard] nothing. Many of these impacts take place much later," Shiva says.

Regulatory questions 

Guillaume Gruere follows the biotech crop debate at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC. He points to some flaws in India's regulatory system that may have added to people's concerns.

"Maybe...part of why it's all debated, and why people are not confident in this process," he says, is because, "there have been some mistakes on whether they should include people or not [and] what types of tests they were running," and other problems with the system.

Gruere says the tests that were done were sufficient, even if the process has been lacking.

Public outcry

India's genetic engineering approval committee endorsed the B-t brinjal. But with debate swirling around the issue, India's environment minister held a series of public meetings across the country in January, some of which became shouting matches between supporters and opponents.

"He really asked for criticism, and he got it," Gruere says.

Whether that criticism swayed him against Bt brinjal, or whether farmers eager to spray fewer pesticides will win out may be evident soon. On Feb.10, the environment minister is expected to issue his opinion.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs