Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mutagenic brinjal pitted against transgenic brinjal: Safety debate goes on

Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: With the Indian agriculture needing a fresh
infusion of biotechnology to improve the yields to meet the demand of
ever-growing population, farm experts find fault with the Central
government over its alleged double standards on “mutagenic” and
“transgenic” food crops.

The Central government has been promoting over two dozen food crops
developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre through “mutation
breeding” using radiation to alter the genetic make-up of plants.
While harmful radioisotopes like cobalt-60 is used to trigger genetic
changes in plants to provide them traits like high yield or resistance
to pests, a gene from a bacterium is used in case of “transgenic”
crops to achieve the same qualities.

“Mutagenic brinjal, whose genetic make-up has been changed using
cobalt-60, has been in use in Indian markets for about three decades
without any protests from any quarters”, said Dr David Spielman from
the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, USA.

Dr David is one of the many experts currently in the city to
participate in a two-day seminar on biotechnology in Indian
agriculture, being organised by the Centre for Economic and Social
Studies (CESS) from January 18. Prof Ronald J Herring of Cornell
University, New York, said “the experts at the seminar will look at
strong evidence on the impact of biotechnology on farming, crop
production, and income of farmers and the welfare of their families.
We will not simply debate whether the technology is good or bad, but
will come out with strong evidence to support the claims”.

Though the Centre allowed Bt cotton a decade ago, it withheld the
permission to release Bt brinjal for commercial consumption. This has
brought criticism from experts like Dr David and Prof Gregory Graf of
Colorado State University, USA. They argue that genetically engineered
food crops are as safe as any other foodstuff. About a dozen other
food crops including rice, maize and okra are under lab studies in the

Using induced mutations and cross breeding, the department of
biotechnology has released 23 crop varieties for commercial
cultivation. They include nine groundnut, 10 pulses, two mustard
varieties, and one variety each of jute and rice. The mutagenic
groundnut variety (TAG-24) is cultivated in Andhra Pradesh and seven
other States.

Dr David disapproved of the “story of catastrophe” of Bt cotton
growers, arguing that today over 1000 bt cotton hybrids are available
in India and a majority of farmers have been using them, leading to a
reduction of 50 per cent in use of chemical pesticides

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