Maharashtra firm seeks Karnataka nod to test genetically modified brinjal
A Maharashtra-based company has sought to conduct biosafety trials of genetically modified (Bt) brinjal seeds in Karnataka after a committee under the Union Environment Ministry approved the move in 2020.
Beejsheetal Research Private Limited has filed an application before the government in this regard, seeking permission to conduct trials of two varieties of seeds – Janak and BSS-793 – at the University of Horticulture, Bagalkot.
The company’s seeds employ the technology developed by the National Institute for Plant Biotechnology which developed the Event 142 (Cry1Fa1 gene).
The move has sparked concerns in Karnataka, which had steadfastly opposed Bt brinjal in 2010. Now, the Centre giving clearance to conduct trials in multiple states has experts worried in view of possible leakage of seeds or contamination through cross-pollination.
India is considered home to 3,951 varieties of brinjal and Karnataka is estimated to have 150 varieties, including the famed Mattu Gulla which has received GI tag.
Doubts expressed by the scientific community, and opposition from state governments and civil society had made the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh put off the Bt brinjal decision.
The Centre has since made a U-turn, allowing GM crop trials (cotton and maize) and even environmental release (mustard) last year. Experts have noted that while studies show the benefits of GM crops in the short term, they are silent on handing over farmers’ seed ownership to big corporations.
‘In a set up like India, one state opposing GM crops may not be feasible as the clearance by neighbouring states will eventually lead to leakage of seeds or contamination through cross-pollination over the years. Only the Centre can take a stand based on empirical studies,’ a senior official said.
The latest application by Beejsheetal is based on the clearance by the MoEF’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to conduct biosafety research trials. The two varieties come with promises similar to the seeds developed by Mahyco a decade ago: resistance to pests.
T V Ramachandra, faculty at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, noted that scientists are yet to discover the potential of the naturally available varieties.
‘There are 13 varieties of brinjal in one part of Uttara Kannada district, each with special properties and better resistance to pests. Scientists can explore the hybrid option before jumping to GM, which provides a straight road for companies to establish seed monopoly,’ he said.
To a question, Principal Secretary (Ecology and Environment) Vijay Mohan Raj said that they were yet to review the application. ‘The application will be scrutinised and placed before the state-level appraisal committee,’ he said.
Leo Saldanha of the Environment Support Group said by introducing Bt seeds, the government is showing its intent to protect seed companies at the cost of farmers.
‘The government is intent on protecting corporations at the cost of farmers. We have questioned the mechanism adopted by GEAC in providing clearances to several seeds. In the case of brinjal, we need to check from where did the researchers access the brinjal variety, and if it was in compliance with the Biodiversity Act,’ he added.