“Eggplant,” notes the Oxford Companion to Food, “is not an appropriate name for the varieties sold in western countries.”
Everywhere else, it seems, people have a different name for this crop. In Britain, they call it an “aubergine,” which sounds too French for my tastes. In the Caribbean, it’s a “brown jolly,” which has a nice ring to it even though the plant isn’t brown. This odd name is almost certainly a corruption of the Indian word, imported by immigrants: “brinjal.”
The Indians are the world champs of brinjal or eggplant production. Some 25 million of their farmers–more than the population of Texas–cultivate the crop. Each year, they grow more than 8 million tons of it. And by 2007 or 2008, they may have access to a GM eggplant that boosts their yields dramatically. That’s good news because it will give them some added protection they need.
Don’t you hate it when you buy a dozen eggs at the grocery store and half of them crack on the way home? Well, that’s sort of what eggplant farmers experience all the time: Indian farmers, for instance, routinely lose more than half of their eggplants to insect pests. Most of them are poor, and improved yields are a key to their economic wellbeing.
We put eggs in cartons to protect them. Eggplant farmers try to protect their crops with chemical sprays. Here in New Jersey, I’ve grown eggplants for about 30 years, and one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t spray them enough to keep them healthy. The Colorado potato beetle loves to eat eggplants. If the weather turns hot, mites infest it. And if mites get going, forget about it: Your eggplant crop is lost.
For farmers, these bugs hurt our yields and the insecticides hurt our bottom line. That’s why the promise of genetically enhanced eggplants is so high: If we can take advantage of the same technologies that have revolutionized soybean, corn, and cotton farming, then we’ll be able to produce eggplants that are more readily available, better looking, and less expensive for consumers.
The initial research behind GM eggplants took place in the United States, partly at Cornell University. India offers the biggest market for this innovation, of course, and right now it’s performing large-scale, open-field tests so that regulators can learn all there is to know about this new crop.
Anti-biotech activists are of course throwing their usual temper tantrums. They’re trying to get the Indian courts to stop these trials. Local Greenpeace protestors want bans and labels. If they succeed, they’ll do enormous damage to a technology that carries remarkable potential not just for Indians, but for poor farmers in Bangladesh and the Philippines, where brinjal is also popular.
“The benefits to farmers in the three countries where brinjal is the common man’s food will be in the region of $600 million because of higher income to farmers and the saving on pesticides usage,” said K. Vijayraghavan, an Indian scientist who is working on the GM eggplant project.
It’s a healthy crop, too: A fundamental source of food that isn’t a grain. It’s low in cholesterol and calories and high in important vitamins.
In the United States, eggplants are more of a delicacy than a staple food. They’re still seen as slightly exotic. That’s how the plant got its American name, by the way: From an uncommon variety of the plant that produces a fruit that’s white, small, and round–it looks a lot like an egg. (The Australians, in fact, call it “eggfruit” and in some West African countries, it’s a “garden egg.”)
I wish I could say that brinjal by any other names tastes just as sweet, but in truth eggplants are bitter before you cook them. But with a little preparation, they can have a rich flavor. Italian restaurants like to serve them with tomatoes, and they go well with veal.
I hope they have a chance to go well with biotechnology, too. Mangiare!
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org)