BT Cotton and BT Brinjal: Issues

What Are Transgenic Crops?

Transgenic plants are the ones in which the DNA is genetically modified using genetic engineering techniques. The objective is to introduce a new trait to the plant which doesn’t naturally occur in the species. They contain a gene or genes that are artificially inserted into the genome.

Bt Cotton and the Issues 

Bt Cotton :

It is a transgenic crop created by genetically modifying its genome to express a microbial protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. It is a designed to be a insect-resistant crop. The transgene inserted into its genome produces toxin crystals that the plant would not normally produce leading to the death of the insect.

History and present status of Bt cotton in India:

In 1993, Monsanto partnered with Indian seed company MAHYCO in a bid to introduce Bt cotton in India. They acquired permission for field testing of seeds in 2001 and finally Bt cotton seeds of Bollgard-I (since 2002) with Cry1Ac gene and Bollgard-II (since 2006) with Cry2Ab gene are approved for sale on a commercial scale.

According to the Cotton Association of India, more than 2000 Bt hybrids have been approved by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee for commercial cultivation. The area under Bt cotton cultivation, which was hardly 0.29 lakh ha (in 2002-03, increased to 119.40 lakh in 2014-15. Cotton Advisory Board estimated area under cotton cultivation is 128.26 lakh ha during 2016-17 and and 124.44 lakh ha during 2017-18.

Advantages of cultivating Bt cotton:

  • Yields around 300 kg/ha at the time of introduction of Bt cotton in 2002 have increased to 500 kg/ha now.
  • India has become a major exporter of raw cotton from being a major importer in earlier decades.
  • The Bt variety have helped to save the crop from bollworm and thus secure the income of farmers.
  •  Bt cotton accounts for 90% of total cotton acreage in the country.

Issues:

  • Ever since its introduction, Bt cotton has faced severe opposition based on environmental and health implications.
  • Bt varieties destroy the genetic diversity of the crops.
  • Monopoly of seed supply by Monsanto.
  • Over the last three years, reports have emerged that pink bollworm is becoming immune to Bollgard-II.
  • In 2017-18, the productivity is expected to be 9% lower than previous year.
  • According to the Maharastra Agriculture department, 80% of the cotton-growing area is affected by pink bollworm.
  • India a unique country among 14 other countries to have suffered the resistance to pink bollworm.


Why is resistance to pink bollworm unique to India?

o   India resisted itself to cultivating long duration hybrids since the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002 while all other Bt cotton growing countries mainly grow open-pollinated varieties rather than hybrids.

o   The Monsanto agreement licensing its BG-1 and BG-2 varieties to Indian seed companies restricted the introduction of these traits to hybrids only.

o   For the Indian seed companies, hybrids are more attractive.

o   Hybrids lose their genetic stability when they are replanted, thus compelling the farmers to buy seeds each time protecting corporate revenues and burdening the farmers raising their input costs.

o   Introduction of Bt gene into only one parent of Indian hybrids. So some produce cotton balls that are resistant to pink bollworm and some are not.

o   Farmers have given up traditional knowledge in cotton cultivation including the practices used for pest control instead of integrating them with Bt technology.

It is the difficult to estimate the role played by Bt cotton in a developing country like India amidst the complicated socio-economic factors like trade laws, seed prices, counterfeit seeds, high interest rates from money lenders and high pest pressures.

Proposed Solutions:

  •        Shifting to short duration varieties and short duration crops (140 – 160 days).
  •        Moving away from the Bt technology all together in some regions. Some researchers suggest that Bt cotton in not necessary in some areas
  •        Organic cotton cultivation – backed by research suitable to the agro climatic conditions of India.
  •        Tackling resistance to pink bollworm through practices like Integrated Pest Management.

Bt Brinjal and issues surrounding it

Bt Brinjal:

Bt Brinjal is a transgenic or genetically modified crop created by inserting a gene (Cry1Ac) from bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the genome of brinjal. The Bt variety has been developed to give resistance against lepidopteron insects like Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit Borer (Helicoverpa armigera). The Bt toxin obstructs the digestive processes of the insects thus destroying them.

History and Present State in India:

Mahyco, a Maharastrian seed company has developed this variety in collaboration with Monsanto. First attempt to commercialization has been done in 2005. Permission for field trials was granted by the Environment Ministry in 2009. Protests took place by environmental activists following the permission given for field trials. Subsequently Supreme Court recommended a 10 year moratorium on field trials on all genetically modified food crops and a complete ban on field trials of transgenic crops that originate in India.

Positives if introduced in India:  

  •        The area under brinjal cultivation has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
  •        Over 20% of the crop is damaged by Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer.
  •        Introduction of Bt brinjal can add to the production and secure the income of the farmers.
  •        GM food crops are already being used in many countries around the world.
  •        Bt brinjal variety has been introduced in Bangladesh.
  •        There are no definite scientific evidences to show that GM crops are harmful to human health.
  •        Use of conventional chemical pesticides to kill the pests not only damages the environment but also affects the human health.


Issues:

  •        Environmentalists suggest that Bt variety might harm the plant biodiversity.
  •        Monopoly of seed companies like Monsanto.
  •        Like in the case of Bt cotton, insects can develop resistance to Bt toxins.
  •        Unforeseen ecological, environmental and health hazards.
  •        Greenpeace report on Bt brinjal brought out the following issues:

o   Brinjal relatives grow in the regions where Bt variety is proposed. This might lead to mating and spread of Bt genes in other relatives as well.

o   This might lead to ecological implications along with future crop and contamination and hampering farmer rights.

o   Spread of Bt gene might lead to brinjal becoming an aggressive and problematic weed.

o   If the Bt variety cross pollinates with other relatives, it might result in hybrid offspring, which may grow into aggressive and problematic weeds.

o   Concerns also include food safety and effect on other organisms like beneficial insects and butterflies which might ultimately affect the pollination of other plants.

  •        Testing being adequate and soil contamination.

Conclusion:

Biotechnology can be one of the many tools that can help in addressing the issues of food and nutrition security, climate change, etc. Further steps in the GM technology should be taken with proper consultation of all the stakeholders involved and adequate scientific evidence.

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