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Anti-Ge Activism In India Targets Bt BRINJAL

C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India krao@vsnl.com
Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) sought the permission of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India, for large-scale open field trials of eight Bt brinjal hybrids. This threw the anti-tech activists in India into a tizzy. ‘Position papers on Bt brinjal’, spiced with a lot of pseudo-science have been widely circulated, demanding GEAC’s ban of all transgenics in India. The GEAC placed the biosecurity data provided by Mahyco on their website for public comment. The propaganda machinery has now drafted, anti-GE experts/scientists from the US, UK and New Zealand.

Brinjal (aubergine, egg plant, Solanum melongena) is a vegetable in Asia and Europe. The original Persian/Arabic name al-bAdhinjAn, gave rise to, a) with the al, the French name 'aubergine' derived from Catalan albergínia, and b) without the al, the Portuguese berinjela, and the Spanish berenjena, which became brinjal in Indian and Sri Lankan English. The samskrith name vatinganah, produced baingan in Hindi, van(g)kayi in Telugu (-kayi is raw fruit), badanekaryi in Kannada and similar names in Indian languages.

Centres of Origin of cultivated plants are determined on a variety of circumstantial evidence, especially on the number and diversity of related wild species. In most cases there is hardly any sound scientific proof for the conclusions drawn.

Overall evidence strongly suggests that South America was the Centre of Origin of the species of the genus Solanum, to which both potato (Solanum tuberosum) and brinjal belong.

The exact origin of Solanum melongena is uncertain. It probably originated from the African wild species Solanum incanum. Solanum melongena was first domesticated in Southeast China, and taken to the Mediterranean region during the Arab conquests in the 7th century. If brinjal was mentioned in ancient Indian literature, it only indicates that it was naturalized, having been introduced into India, a long time ago and this in itself is not an evidence of its origin in India.

Centres of Diversity are determined on the basis of the number and diversity of related species or varieties in the wild. The fundamental criterion of relationship is that two or more species or varieties freely interbreed producing fertile offspring. The number and diversity of cultivated varieties of a crop species in a country is not the basis to determine origin and diversity, as developing such varieties is an essentially human activity.

A decade or so ago, considerations of origin and diversity were of some significance in crop plant breeding, to aid the choice of species/varieties with desirable genes and to produce fertile hybrids with the cultivated varieties of the related crops. With several techniques of molecular biology and genetic engineering available now, the relevance of theoretical and academic inferences on the Centres of Origin and Diversity has diminished considerably.

Several species of Solanum occur in the wild in India. Cytogeneticists have artificially produced interspecific hybrids of species of Solanum. It was not so difficult to produce first generation hybrids, which generally suffered from chromosomal instability and pollen sterility, hardly resulting in any fertile hybrids.

Random Amplification of Polymorphic DNA analysis (RAPD, a technique in genome comparisons) shows that Solanum incanum and then Solanum viarum are the closest to Solanum melongena. Solanum incanum and Solanum viarum occur infrequently in the wild in India, but are hardly sympatric and panmictic with the cultivated varieties. When artificial hybrids were produced, the progeny were sterile, leaving no chances for gene flow among these related species.

In nature, species of Solanum do not normally hybridize, as they are predominantly (over 90 per cent) self-pollinated. Anthers that open by small apical pores are the characteristic feature of the genus Solanum, unlike in many other plant species where the anthers open dehiscing longitudinally to fully expose the pollen to the air and pollinators. Solanum pollen are sticky and do not travel long distances, even if they become airborne. Insects visit Solanum flowers but their role in pollination is insignificant.

There are many cultivated varieties of brinjal in India, some of which are restricted to specific regions, as for example the ‘Udupi gulla’ variety of Mangalore. Wild species of Solanum and several cultivated varieties of brinjals co-exist. However, farmers and scientists are not aware of any hybrids between the two groups and no effort is made to protect different varieties of cultivated brinjals from hybridizing among themselves or with the wild Solanums.

The floral structure and the reproductive biology of brinjals and experience in cultivating them for several centuries in India, do not suggest any possibility of gene flow from transgenic brinjals to normal brinjals.

The biosecurity of Bt insecticidal proteins in transgenic crops is thoroughly assured by evidence on the use of Bt pesticides for over 60 years and the cultivation and consumption of Bt transgenics for a decade. None of the extensive studies on the safety of Bt proteins conducted in various countries has indicated any possibility of their being harmful to animals and humans or the environment.

Cry 1 Ac is toxic only under specific conditions. It is non-toxic to all organisms with an acidic stomach and with no binding sites for the crystal protein, which includes all mammals and non-target organisms.
Brinjal fruits are not toxic to mammals. But, all the other parts of the brinjal palnt are toxic, due to several alkaloids. Cattle are not deliberately fed on brinjal plants. Grown under water scarcity, even the fruit accumulates alkaloids and phenolic compounds, which give a bitter taste and make the fruit inedible.

Scientific evidence does not indicate any possibility of Bt brinjals posing serious or unmanageable risks to the farmers, consumers or the environment.

August 10, 2006