It is very difficult to stop a good idea from spreading.
This is the ultimate lesson gained from the discovery this spring that genetically modified brinjal is being illegally cultivated in India (approval still pending).
The concern is that although regulators determined nearly a decade ago that this crop is safe for human consumption, the Indian government still has not approved its commercial planting. This means that Indian farmers lack access to an important agricultural tool. It also means that growing this kind of brinjal is illegal.
I want to be clear about one thing: Nobody should break the law. Farmers who seek to remove India’s political ban on some of the world’s best GMO technologies should work through the political system rather than disregard our country’s rules.
It is easy for me to understand why farmers would go to great lengths to use this promising plant.
I’m a strong believer in biotechnology. Although I’ve never used it on my farm in the Punjab state of India, I have observed its benefits in Bt cotton, recognize its safety and believe it holds enormous potential for farmers and consumers.
Brinjal is one of India’s most important vegetables. Known in the United States and elsewhere as “eggplant,” it’s a staple of our diet. Some regard it as a poor man’s crop because low-income consumers rely on it. Others call it “King of the Vegetables” because it is a very good source of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Just about every Indian eats brinjal, regardless of income and social status.
Many small-scale and marginal farmers grow brinjal for personal consumption. Those who cultivate it for a living appreciate its hardiness and ability to withstand drought.
But the crop is vulnerable to many pests, especially the fruit and shoot borer (FSB). The larvae of this moth species feast on brinjal. Left uncontrolled, they can devastate huge fields. Farmers try to control the damage through the application of insecticides, but the effectiveness of these sprays is limited.
The problem is that the larvae dig deep into the fruit, where the insecticides don’t reach. Because of this, many farmers overspray—increasing the costs of production and also exposing themselves to personal risk.
But technology offers an excellent solution: Bt brinjal, as it’s called, contains a natural ability to defeat FSB. The larvae simply won’t eat these plants. This amazing tool of crop protection would make it much easier for Indian farmers to deliver a safe and nutritious vegetable.
Unfortunately, anti-science activists have spread lies about GMOs and Indian farmers are not allowed to plant it.
We know the truth, however. Our country’s scientists and regulators have given their stamp of approval to Bt brinjal. Moreover, we can look to the experience of our neighboring country, Bangladesh, where farmers enjoy access.
“Farmers growing Bt brinjal in Bangladesh are seeing three times the production of other brinjal varieties, at half the production cost, and are getting better prices at the market,” says Jahangir Hossain, who works with a Cornell University program that assists small-scale, resource-poor farmers in Bangladesh.
India’s Bt brinjal almost certainly was smuggled into the country from Bangladesh whose border adjoins our country.
This shouldn’t surprise us: India’s farmers simply want the same technology that is helping so many Bangladeshis farmers.
I certainly know how they feel. Although I don’t grow cotton on my farm, I’ve seen how Bt cotton has helped Indian agriculture. The time has come for us to use genetic modification in food crops, as so many other countries already have done. Bt brinjal is an obvious candidate for commercialization.
We shouldn’t stop there. I grow mustard seed on my farm and would welcome the introduction of GM mustard seed, which I would adopt immediately. It would allow me to grow more food on less land, benefitting all by keeping consumer prices low and helping the environment.
For several years, I have worn a yellow turban as a silent protest against India’s unjust and unscientific moratorium on GM food crops like GM mustard. It has served me well as a conversation piece, providing me with an opportunity to tell others about the advantages of 21st-century technology—and why India needs more of it in agriculture.
In the end, there’s only one way for Indian authorities to prevent the illegal cultivation of Bt brinjal: Make it legal and allow the approval of this important technology developed by Indian agricultural scientists.