Bt Eggplant

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Bt Eggplant (called Bt Brinjal in India and Bt Talong in the Philippines) is an eggplant that has been genetically engineered to produce an insecticide (Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt toxin) in every cell. Bt eggplant was developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO), which applied for GE eggplant to be permitted to be grown commercially in India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.[1][2] Monsanto has a 26% stake in MAHYCO.[3] The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Cornell University worked with MAHYCO in the development of Bt eggplant.[2] According to USAID, Bt eggplant "will be made available on a royalty-free basis to smallholder farmers through a novel public-private partnership."[2] Those who advocate for the legalization and use of Bt eggplant often cite statistics of huge crop damage to eggplants by the Eggplant Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) as well as very high frequency of insecticide spraying by conventional farmers in the countries targeted for the introduction of the Bt eggplant.

Bt Eggplant

"Cry1Ac is a gene from the naturally occurring bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and produces an insecticidal protein that has a toxic effect on many caterpillars, including the eggplant fruit and shoot borer. The eggplant fruit and shoot borer is a major insect pest of eggplant in many parts of the world and is very difficult to control using conventional methods. Transgenic eggplants that express the Cry1Ac gene have been developed that effectively control the eggplant fruit and shoot borer."[4]

As of June 2012:

"Partners in India have developed transgenic Bt eggplant varieties. The Bt eggplant was approved by India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) but commercialization of the crop is under a moratorium imposed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
"In Bangladesh the product development is nearing completion and efforts are under way to present the final regulatory dossier to the Government of Bangladesh.
"Partners in the Philippines are conducting multi­‐location field trials in five locations."[4]

Bt Eggplant in India

India, a country that is home to incredible biodiversity of eggplant, was one of three countries targeted by a USAID-funded effort to develop and commercialize genetically engineered Bt eggplant (known as Bt brinjal in India). According to a 2010 leaked memo from the U.S. State Department:[5]

"The product in question is a GM eggplant developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (an Indian seed company known as Mahyco, which is 26 percent owned by Monsanto), Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU), and the University of Agriculture Sciences (UAS) Dharwad, using a trait from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium (cry1Ac, a genetic event, which was developed by Monsanto) that makes the eggplant resistant to the fruit and shoot borer, a common insect pest. USAID, through its Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSP II) led by Cornell University, which works in partnership with the Government of India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, TNAU, and UAS, Dharwad, has been supporting the work on Bt brinjal for six years."

The memo goes on to note the importance of eggplant in Indian agriculture, as it was "grown in about 566,000 hectares with annual production of around 9.6 million tons" as of 2010. At that time it accounted for 7.6 percent of the area in India devoted to growing vegetable crops and it was grown by an estimated 1.4 million small and marginal farmers. The crop is grown throughout India. Major producing states are West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Gujarat. Additional major eggplant producing states include Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The 2010 memo reported:

"Eggplant cultivation is extremely input-intensive (insecticides), as the crop is very prone to insect pests, particularly the fruit and shoot borer. Fruit damage as high as 95 percent and losses up to 70 percent have been reported by Indian farmers. Consequently, farmers resort to frequent insecticide applications and biological control measures, resulting in high costs of cultivation, negative effects on the environment and serious risk to consumer health and safety. Efforts to develop pest-resistant conventional plants through traditional breeding have met with almost no success."[5]

In October 2009, India's Ministry of Environment and Forests' Genetic Engineering Approval Committee recommended that Bt brinjal was safe for environmental release and recommended commercial approval of the crop to the central government. Following much public outcry, Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh held a series of seven public meetings on the issue that were attended by over 8000 people.[5]

Nina Federoff Meets With Indian Officials

Nina Federoff, a vocal advocate for GMOs and then the science advisor of the U.S. State Department, met with Montek Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission just before the Indian government announced a decision not to legalize Bt eggplant.[5] During their meetings, they discussed the issue of Bt eggplant.

India Rejects Bt Eggplant

The Indian Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, announced his final decision regarding the commercial approval of genetically modified Bt eggplant on February 9, 2010. "The Minister declared that a moratorium is needed on Bt brinjal in India until the government regulatory system ensures safety on the human side, mainly through long-term scientific studies."[5] A leaked cable from the U.S. State Department says, "The decision is a huge set-back for the development and marketing of GM food crops in India, as well as in other developing countries."[5]

"Ramesh's decision stated: "Very serious fears have been raised in many quarters on the possibility of Monsanto controlling our food chain." The Minister then continues, stating "I have no bias whatsoever" and cites Monsanto's substantial investments in India. In the end, the Minister highlights the perceived lack of local, indigenous competition to Monsanto as a primary concern."[5]

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, which the 2010 State Department memo accurately refers to as "India's equivalent to Dr. Norman Borlaug," weighed in, urging "to show caution and take two critical steps: 1) conserve India's genetic heritage in brinjal and 2) assess the chronic effects of consumption of Bt brinjal. Dr. Swaminathan's appeal to the Minister compared the need for long-term studies on the consumption of Bt brinjal to the studies carried out on the impact of tobacco smoking relative to the incidence of lung cancer in humans."[5] The State Department memo adds:[5]

"(Note: The MS Swaminathan Research Foundation has an ongoing biotech research program studying abiotic stress tolerance in rice. Limited field trials of transgenic rice varieties containing 'salinity' tolerant mangrove genes have been undertaken. Some related patents have been filed; however, there have been limited efforts for its regulatory and commercial approval. While Dr. Swaminathan has been historically in favor of agricultural biotechnology, he recently expressed strong reservations against research and development on labor displacing biotech events, such as herbicide tolerance in crops. He has also voiced concerns of multi-national firms taking over the seed industry in India. End Note.)"

The State Department memo notes some opposition from India's Department of Agriculture to the decision against commercialization of Bt eggplant.

As of now, there is "no timeline for lifting the moratorium on Bt brinjal release." Ramesh "stated that the 'ban' should remain until independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and the environment, including the genetic diversity of existing varieties of Indian brinjal."[5]

Impact on GMOs in India

The 2010 memo concludes:

"Nevertheless, the approval of Bt brinjal is pushed back by at least two to three years, and overall public sentiment is now set against GM foods. Industry and government scientists fear the Ramesh decision may also have a significant impact on approval timelines (perhaps a five to ten year delay) of GM crops which are currently in the pipeline for approval, such as Bt rice, Bt maize, GM tomato, etc.
"The decision on the commercial release of Bt brinjal may potentially have a regional impact as trials are also at advanced stages in Bangladesh and the Philippines. Vijay Raghavan, South Asia Regional In-charge of the USAID-funded ABSP-II, who is working to develop Bt brinjal in three different countries, said that Bangladesh and the Philippines have been looking to India as a leader as they do not have the capacity for full-line evaluation of B t brinjal. Thus, India's decision may have a significant regional impact regarding all GM crops."[5]

Organizations Involved in Bt Eggplant Development

USAID lists its partner organizations on the Bt eggplant project as:[2][4]

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