Tuesday, February 17, 2009

GM Brinjal anyone?

Brinjal is one of the most important vegetables in Asia. Statistics in India shows that brinjal is the second highest consumed vegetable and a total of 1.4 million small, marginal and resource-poor farmers grow brinjal on 550,000 hectares annually. Brinjal provides a steady income to Indian farmers throughout the year and India produces one quarter of the global production which translates to 8 – 9 million tonnes.

One major challenge for Indian and other brinjal farmers is the attack by insects and the most potent one is the fruit and shoot borer (FSB). FSB causes losses of up to 60 -70% in commercial plantings. Damage starts in the nursery, prior to transplating, and continues to the time of harvesting. This is then carried over to the next planting season. FSB damages brinjal in two ways – first, it infests young shoots which limits the ability of plants to produce healthy fruit bearing shoots, thereby reducing potential yield; second, it bores into fruits making them unmarketable. Due to the fact that FSB larvae remain concealed within shoots and fruits, insecticide applications are ineffective, despite 15-40 sprays, or more in one season. Farmers usually spray till the fruits are harvested, leaving no time for the fruits to be free of chemicals.

The good news – Mahyco, a local company, partly owned by Monsanto has successfully developed Bt Brinjal after eight years of research. The crop has undergone rigorous science-based regulatory approval processes in India and is currently at an advanced stage of consideration of deregulation by the Indian regulatory authorities. When approved, Bt brinjal will be the first GM food crop to be approved for human consumption in India. Bt brinjal has the gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium that is widely used to develop GM crops. This technology was donated by its private sector developer, Mahyco, to public sector institutes in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines to benefit small resource-poor farmers. It is an excellent example of technology transfer from the private to the public sector.

I would like to share some scientific facts on Bt brinjal here. Studies on food and feed safety, including toxicity and allergenicity tests that were conducted on rats, rabbits, fish, chickens, goats and cows have confirmed that Bt brinjal is as safe as its non-Bt counterparts. Environmental impact assessments to study germination, pollen flow, invasiveness, aggressiveness and weediness too proved to be similar to non-Bt brinjal. Number of larvae on Bt brinjal were significantly reduced from 3.5-80 to 0-20 larvea. Furthermore, multi-location research trials confirmed that insecticide use were reduced by 80%.

With this success, one question is starting to linger on my mind. Will this make the opponents of GM more receptive towards this technology? Bt brinjal will certainly reduce the number of insecticide sprays, thus, reducing the amount of chemical residues from reaching our dinner plates. It will also lower the environmental footprint caused by the agriculture sector. It will reduce the exposure of farmers and their families to chemicals. It has proven that collaboration between private and public sectors is possible. It has proven that GM technology actually benefits resource poor farmers in developing countries.

It will be interesting (frustrating as well...) to watch the opponents of GM technology taking to the streets in space suits trying to deprive poor farmers of this technology for various unscientific reasons.

For those who want to read further, please visit, www.isaaa.org/kc.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan


Anonymous said...

Dear Ms Mahaletchumy,

The topic of the blog was very interesting. I might need some assistance from you. I have a brinjal plantation in Sg Pelek, Sepang. The vegetables suffered the same symptoms as stated in your blog. We were all frustrated as there was no suitable solution. The solution by Mayho Technology seems quite interesting. If you could elaborate further, it would be most helpful and perhaps there could be some business arrangements if there is a way to commercialise the brinjal plantation in Sg Pelek. my email address is baba_13_2002@yahoo.co.uk
I look forward to your correspondence. Thank you

MABIC blog said...

Thank you for your comment. Glad to know you see the potential of this technology and the benefits. But I am afraid it might be too early for Malaysian farmers to enjoy the fruits of this technology. There are several hurdles before this can be commercialized here. First, although the Biosafety Act has been gazetted, the regulations are not ready yet. It is important for any country that wishes to commercialize GM crops to have biosafety regulations in place which will enable scientists to do field trials and evaluate its benefits and risks. Even before this can be done, it is important that the new trait is transferred into a local commercial variety. This was what Mahyco in India did with their public research institutes. It is not feasible to just bring any seeds into a country, because our pest varieties could be different. Yet, there is another constraint - is brinjal an important crop to Malaysia for scientists and industry to plough their money and time into it? Which research agency will take up this challenge?

Now you see why I strongly advocate public research and an enabling environment for public research to strive and develop crops that are important to our market and farmers. And also why I am always for technology transfer which will help develop expertise in our country, by developing local varieties even if involved genes acquired from foreign companies. Our scientists has lots to learn from this research and field trials. They will know how to assess risk and manage them. And this will lead to our very own technology one day. This is where we truly lack.

I can only hope farmers like you will not be deprived of this useful technology and left behind.

Best wishes