Brinjal, a native species of South Asia is considered as one of the most important vegetables of Bangladesh. The area coverage under different kinds of vegetables is merely 459,000 hectares to have a total production of 3 million metric tonnes. Out of this coverage, brinjal has a share of around 50,000 hectares to produce 345,000 metric tonnes (7 tonnes/ha), only. A healthy brinjal crop could yield around 6 to 7 times more than that of the average yield. The FSB (Leucinodes orbonalis) larvae affect the plant to incur the damage up to 70% in commercial plantings. They not only damage the tender shoots of growing plants but also bore into the fruits to damage them partially or completely. Thus the estimated loss sometimes goes more than 70%. Similarly, the market value of the fruits is reduced significantly. It is estimated that FSB alone reduces the marketable produce by two-thirds (Rahman et al., 2002 and 2009: cited from IAAS brief, 2014). That is why farmers have little option rather than applying insecticides not only for once or twice, maybe as many as 80 times per crop season. Even, they do not bother of the Economic Threshold Level (ETL) or the other scientific methodology in insect control. They just apply insecticide whenever they see the insects in the field. Still, they are not satisfied with the performance of the crop. This excessive application of insecticides is quite risky for the consumers and the environment as well. At the same time, farmers’ margin of profit gets squeezed significantly. Therefore scientists in Bangladesh were looking for an alternative solution to that of the insecticide application. They considered Bt Brinjal as one of the best economic ways to control pests.
They got the initial product of Bt Brinjal from Mahyco (Maharastra Hybrid Seed Company) an Indian seed company based in Jalna, Maharastra.
Mahyco obtained the toxin-protein producing gene Cry1Ac (taken from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis: Bt) and the two supporting genes (promoter, marker) from Monsanto. The insertion of this gene along with the other supporting genes into the brinjal genome is done using Agrobacterium-mediated genetic transformation method. As the toxic gene is taken from Bt, the genetically engineered brinjal plant with Bt-gene is called Bt brinjal (first event of Bt Brinjal). The Bt-toxin is effective in the whole body of the Bt-brinjal plant. When a larva of FSB feeds on the plant, the alkaline larva-gut solubilise the Bt-toxin protein. The protease enzyme present in the gut membrane activates the solubilised Bt-toxin protein. The activated protein is then bonded to the specific receptor protein present in the (gut) membrane and perforates the membrane leading to disrupt the digestive system. Thus a larva succumbs to death (Wikipedia).
The first event of a GM brinjal plant developed by Mahyco was designated as EE1. Mahyco was trying to get its way in India through the collaboration with two public universities namely, Universities of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad and Tamilnadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore.
EE1 was bred with many of the local brinjal varieties to introgress the Bt gene (Cry1Ac). After extensive research and following all the requisites some of the advance brinjal lines were on the verge of approval in 2009. But there was a huge public and media outcry against the decision of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India to approve the cultivation of Bt brinjal. Jairam Ramesh, the then Environment Minister of India took the incident earnestly and imposed a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal. He declared, as per the Hindu (the influential Indian Daily), 9 Feb, 2010, moratorium will last “till such time 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 environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country.” so far I know, the moratorium still continues.
On the other hand, BARI initiated its breeding programme to introgress the cry1Ac gene event EE-1 into nine brinjal varieties of Bangladesh.
Mahyco donated the event to BARI through the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII) in 2005-06. The breeding materials were rigorously selected and tasted through successive contained trails, confined trials and multi-location trials from 2005/06 to 2012/13. In July 2013, BARI applied to the National Technical Committee for Crop Biotechnology (NTCCB) for the preparation of approval. The NTCCB reported to the National Committee on Biosafety (NCB) for final approval in September 2013. Ministry of Environment and Forest officially approved four Bt varieties namely, Bt Uttara, Bt Kajla, Bt Nayantara, Bt Ishurdi for limited cultivation in some specific areas of the country on 30 October 2013. In the following year (22 January 2014) Mrs Matia Chowdhury, minister of Agriculture distributed the Bt Brinjal seedlings to 20 farmers to plant in the spring season. (ISSA, 2014). The minister considered this approval of Bt brinjal as the significant steps towards the sustainable food security.
Ronnie Coffman, a professor of Plant Breeding at Cornell University and the only PhD student of Dr Norman Borlaug stated that the extensive use of pesticide to protect the crops to feed the growing population in Bangladesh is a growing threat to human health as well as the environment. As per his statement, pesticide use in Bangladesh has increased twice since the early 1990s. The chemicals are available in the food chain and extended up to underground water. They have the instant impact on human health and the bio-environment around the treated crop fields. The long-term impact on human health is like leukaemia, lung cancer, aplastic anaemia, birth defect, DNA and hormonal change etc. are not unlikely due to the overuse of pesticide. Hence, as per Professor Coffman and BARI scientists, the commercialisation of Bt brinjal would reduce the risk described above considerably. Thus, the release of Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh was made justified. However, after the decision of releasing Bt brinjal, some opponents express their anger against the government. Even there was a process of legal action (WP No-9843: 2013) by SHISUK, one of the NGOs against the Bangladesh government. However, the action was stayed by the honourable High Court on 2 October just four weeks before the final approval of Bt brinjal.
The release of a GM variety is the decisions of the government. I also believe that Bt brinjal would reduce the application of insecticides, significantly. Thus the environmental pollution is supposed to be reduced to some extent for the time being. The yield advantage due to less infection of pest is quite obvious. But what would happen in the future is yet to be understood? The tolerance might be disrupted in an intensive cropping system as experienced from the previous non-GM crop cultivation. Even we have some experience from the Bt cotton cultivation in India.
India holds the second position in cotton both in terms of production and export after China. Around 5 million farmers are growing Bt cotton that occupies more than 80% of the total cotton area. As per ISAAA who patronises the introduction of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, the technology has benefited the farmer, the consumers and the country’s economy. But the opponents claim the reverse. As per Livemint an e-paper (28 August 2017), the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment and forests observed that India’s cotton yield increased by 69% in 2000-2005 while Bt cotton occupied only 6% of total cotton area and only 10% in the following 10 years from 2005 to 2015 when the Bt cotton coverage was 94%. The panel also blamed the government for moving hurriedly to the commercialisation of Bt Cotton. They have also questioned the safety of the GM crop and hardly observed any benefit to justify the risks.
Therefore, prior to going of introducing the Bt Brinjal, Dr John Samuels, novel Solanaceae Crop Project scientist has his concern in the monograph “Genetically engineered Bt Brinjal and implication for plant biodiversity-revisited” published in 2012. I have a question to the NTCCB whether they were familiar with the concerns expressed in the publication. Dr Samuel asks to take care of the following concerns prior to release a crop like Bt Brinjal. I am sure his suggestion is also applicable for the other crops also.
According to Dr Samuels, flowing genes from transgenic crops to the wild relatives must be taken care of. Since 1980, the jumping of a transgene from the host plant to the wild relatives is a matter of concern to many scientists. Thus, there is a probability to evolve more weediness or invasiveness within the wild relatives. The centre of origin of a crop species is an apprehension too. The origin of a crop is encircled by the diversity of that specific crop. So, there is a probability of gene flow from GMO to contaminate the biodiversity of the wild relatives leading to an impact on the whole ecology. I have mentioned earlier that South Asia including Bangladesh is the centre of origin of brinjal. So steps should be taken cautiously before introducing Bt brinjal. I am not sure how did NTCCB agreed to introduce Bt brinjal in a centre of origin of the crop? And they apparently were in a haste to do the job. Despite, all the necessary precautionary measurements, it appears to me that there is a chance to influence the biodiversity of the brinjal population in the country and the region.
Like the Philippines and India, Bangladesh is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. As per the protocol, Bangladesh is committed to preventing introduction of invasive species and conserve the genetic diversity of landrace crops and their wild relatives. By this time, some more crops are in the pipeline. We have to consider all these factors seriously.
Genetic Engineering is a unique science; I personally appreciate that. But it does not mean that I would support applying the science unnecessarily. We have engineered our brinjal in its land of diversity. Similarly, rice is a widely diversified crop in Bangladesh. We are doing the same with the rice also. Do we really need that to do with rice right now? Or we can wait for some time to see the fate of the technology through intensive studies from different angles of thoughts. Can’t we? Therefore, prior to proceeding further, there should be a thorough discussion among scientists, intellectuals, politicians, parliamentarians, consumers’ forum, ethnic and religious representatives etc.
The writer is the Director General (Retired), Bangladesh Rice research Institute, Gazipur