Bt brinjal on the
In a historic move,
India’s biotech regulators approved the country’s
first biotech food crop, a variety of Bt aubergine or eggplant. It was
developed by Monsanto’s Indian joint venture partner, Mahyco
The India biotech crop economy is expected to be further boosted as the
national biotech regulatory agency, the Genetic Engineering Approval
Committee (GEAC), gave its approval to the commercial cultivation of
the country’s first genetically-modified (GM) food crop,
brinjal (aubergine) variety, amidst widespread protests by anti-GM
activists. This will be the country’s and world’s
first approval of Bt brinjal variety.
The commercial cultivation, however, is on hold for some more time.
Though the GEAC has approved the commercial use of the Bt brinjal,
things are still hazy on its likely date with the customer’s
plates. For the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, has embarked on
another long public consultative process before giving the final go
ahead for commercial cultivation.
Brinjal is crucial to India’s Rs 72,000 crore vegetable
economy. Currently, India is the second largest grower of brinjal in
the world after China with 26 percent market share. China is ahead by
four percent. More than 40 percent of the India’s brinjal
crop is lost to pest attacks. The Bt brinjal could minimize this loss
to single digits and make the country the world’s largest
grower of brinjal, the “poor man’s
vegetable.” Similar controversies were raised against the
introduction of Bt cotton and Indian farmers lost four or five crucial
years by the delay. Will Bt brinjal go the same way and Indian farmers
end up paying the price in terms of lost incomes?
The Bt brinjal technology, developed by Monsanto, was taken up by
Mahyco and two public institutions— The Tamil Nadu
Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore and University of
Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad, Karnataka. In addition,
scientists at Cornell University, US, and scientists in the University
of Philippines and Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI)
were also involved in the development of the technology.
Bt brinjal was developed by transforming the brinjal proprietary line
of Mahyco. According to MK Sharma, managing director, Mahyco Monsanto,
the Bt brinjal contains three genes inserted via genetic engineering
First, the Cry1AC gene, which encodes for an insecticidal protein
Cry1AC, was derived from the common soil bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis subsp. kurstaki (B.t.k). The Cry1AC gene is driven by
enhanced CaMV 35S promoter.
Second, the NPTII gene, which encodes the selectable marker enzyme
neomycin phosphotransferase II (NPTII), was used to identify
transformed cells that contained the Cry1AC protein. It has no
pesticidal properties. The NPTII gene is derived from the prokaryotic
The third one is the AAD gene, which encodes for the bacterial
selectable marker enzyme 3”(9)-O-aminnoglycoside adenyl
transferase (AAD), allowed for the selection of bacteria containing the
pMON 10518 plasmid on media containing spectinomycin or streptomycin.
The AAD gene is under the control of a bacterial promoter and hence not
expressed in Bt brinjal. The AAD gene was isolated from transposon Tn7.
The Bt Brinjal was produced using Agrobacterium-mediated transformation
system. The Agrobacterium tumefaciens strain LBA4404 carrying the
vector pMON 10518 (which carries Cry1AC, NPTII and AAD genes) was used
in the transformation process. The T-DNA, which includes Cry1AC, NPTII,
and AAD genes, was transferred into the genome of the brinjal cells.
The seeds of a proprietary line of Mahyco were used as source
material for brinjal transformations.
After the genes were introduced by Agrobacterium-mediated
transformation, transgenic plants were regenerated by tissue culture,
using kanamycin as the selection agent. The development of an improved
method for Agrobacteriummediated brinjal transformation was done at
Mahyco. The plants, regenerated through tissue culture procedures on
media containing kanamycin, were analyzed using ELISA for the presence
of Cry1AC protein. The plants expressing Cry1AC proteins were carried
forward and analyzed in subsequent generations to identify lines, in
which the transgene segregated in the expected Mendelian fashion.
Selected lines were also analyzed by southern blot. A single line
(event EE-1) was introduced into the breeding program. A PCR based
event ID was developed by Mahyco for this unique event EE-1.
The Cry1AC gene in the transgenic Bt brinjal behaved as a single
dominant Mendelian factor indicating stable inheritance of the gene in
the plant genome. To be active against lepidopterans insects (brinjal
fruit and shoot borer; fruit borer) the protein must be ingested. In
the insect gut, the protein binds to specific receptors on the insect
midgut, inserts into the membrane and forms ion-specific-pores. These
events disrupt the digestive processes and cause death of the insect.
“The Cry1AC protein produced in Bt brinjal is non-toxic to
non-lepidopteran insects, birds, fish and mammals as these species lack
receptors for the proteins on the surface of their gut cells. The
acidic medium in gut of these organisms also makes Cry1AC protein
inactive. NPTII and AAD proteins are used as a selectable marker and
have no pesticidal activity and are not known to be toxic to any
species,” said C Kameswara Rao, founder of the Foundation for
Biotechnology Awareness and Education.
Extensive field trials were carried out in Karnataka, Goa, and
Maharashtra at five places. Six popular varieties — Kudchi,
Malapur, Udupi, Gulla, Rabakali, and Goa 112 — cultivated
locally were modified genetically and used in the field trials.
The stormy atmosphere created by anti-GM activists did not deter the
GEAC decision with only three of the 28 members opposing the commercial
release of Bt brinjal variety.
Brinjal is one of the few food crops which is believed to be native to
the Indian subcontinent. This crop, Solanum melongena L, known as
brinjal or baingan in India and eggplant/aubergine elsewhere is
important to the country’s economy. This highly nutritious,
low fat, egg shaped product is consumed widely in the country.
Also, brinjal is the second largest vegetable crop grown in India after
potato accounting for 11 percent of the annual vegetable production of
81 million tonnes. Just four percent of India’s cultivable
land area of 166 million hectares is used for vegetable production.
India ranks first in the world in the production of okra
(lady’s finger) and second in cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant,
peas, onion and tomato. In potatoes, India ranks third globally in
annual production. However, except in the case of tomato,
India’s average yield per hectare for the most commonly
cultivated vegetables is 20 to 30 percent lower than the world average
figures. So technological inputs are crucial to reduce losses due to
pest attacks and improve yields significantly.
Mahyco’s R&D under the guidance of the Department of
Biotechnology and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF),
conducted multi-location field trials regularly from 2004 to 2006 to
evaluate the efficacy of Bt brinjal in controlling brinjal fruit and
shoot borer. Also, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, New
Delhi, independently conducted field trials of Bt brinjal, using its
own protocol, under the aegis of AICRP (VC) during Kharif seasons of
2004-05 and 2005-06. The approval of protocols and supervision of
trials conducted by Mahyco were assigned to a Monitoring and Evaluation
Committee (MEC). Various teams of experts nominated by MEC regularly
visited these trials and submitted reports about these trials to
RCGM/GEAC through MEC. These trials were generally aimed to assess
insect reactions, yield parameters, insecticide usage, and the
economics of Bt brinjal.
Fruit harvested from Bt brinjal plants of the Mahyco hybrids were
evaluated for their physical characters including shape, size and
color. These observations were made at green house level, in field at
11 different locations during Kharif 2004 and six different locations
during Kharif 2005 season. No differences were observed between Bt and
non-Bt brinjal fruit with respect to shape, size and color. Further,
the Bt entries suffered significantly less damage due to pest when
compared with the check and yielded higher number of marketable fruits.
India’s brinjal economy is estimated to be close to $2
billion (Rs 9,600 crore) with 1.4 million farmers cultivating it
annually in nearly 550,000 hectares (1.4 million acres). Area under
brinjal cultivation has grown by 15 percent in the last 10 years but
the production has barely increased by 9 percent. A major factor is the
repeated attacks by the insect Leucinoda orbonalis or fruit and shoot
borer (FSB) which increases the input costs and keeps the production
So far India has approved only a single GM crop, Bt cotton, which was
allowed to be cultivated commercially in 2002. The runaway success of
Bt cotton, more than 85 percent shifting to this GM variety, within
years of its introduction has definitely influenced the government
decision. India’s Bt cotton production has more than doubled
to more than 3.1 million bales (of 170 kg each) in the last five years.
The annual value of the biotech cotton crop, based on the sale price of
Bt cotton seeds in 2008-09 was estimated to be Rs 1,500 crore by
India’s farmers are quick to adapt modern technologies and
the success story of Bt cotton is also likely to be repeated in the
case of Bt brinjal too and Bt brinjal seed companies could expect
annual seed sales in excess of Rs 500 crore in the next few years.
More importantly, now almost 40 percent of the brinjal production in
the country is destroyed by the FSB pest. Adoption of Bt brinjal could
reduce the waste considerably and brinjal farmers could expect to rake
in additional Rs 3,600 to Rs 4,000 crore annually from product sales.
The approval to Bt brinjal was given at a meeting of the GEAC in the
Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi on October 14. The
decision has to be ratified by the MoEF and notified in the government
gazette and licensing arrangements worked out with the technology
The regulatory approval will mark a new beginning for India’s
$300 million, biotech seed industry. Nearly a dozen Indian companies
and agricultural research institutions have been developing 12 to 15
other GM crops. The regulatory barrier crossed by the
country’s first biotech food crops will spur more action on
Transgenic Bt benefits
The direct benefit of bt technology is the
control of the most damaging pest of a particular crop, says C
Technologies come with some concomitant and some consequential
benefits, both of which should be taken together in assessing the total
benefits that accrue. No technology is risk free. Benefits of a
technology should hence be weighed against minimal and acceptable risks
and a favorable cost-benefit ratio.
mitigation, and management are at the heart of regulatory processes.
Planting a non-Bt refugium along with Bt crops is a means of mitigating
the risk of acquired resistance, and so is gene stacking.
The most direct and the
most important benefit of Bt technology is the control of the most
damaging pest of a particular crop, such as the American bollworm of
cotton, stem borers of rice and corn, rootworm of corn, Colorado beetle
of potato or stem and fruit borers of aubergine (brinjal). As systemic
pesticides, Bt proteins take care of these pests (see Bt brinjal on the
horizon, p. 14). The other pests, on which Bt proteins have little or
no effect, need to be controlled by pesticide application, preferably
as a part of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices.
Bt technology imparts
only tolerance of the targeted pest of a particular crop and not total
resistance to it. In view of the variation in the expression of Bt
genes, due to various internal and external factors, two or three
pesticide applications are needed instead of the usual 10 to 20.
Any crop should be
grown under optimal conditions to obtain the best benefits from the new
technology. In India, cotton is often grown under near impossible
conditions, as farmers are lured into growing a cash crop, irrespective
of the inappropriate infrastructure, and suffer disastrous
consequences. In many developing countries, the record of both the
advice given to the farmers and of farmers taking it seriously, is
dismal. Some of the benefits of Bt technology are that it results in a
healthy crop, with more biomass and more yield. It reduces risk to farm
labor involved in pesticide application. It also results in lower
concentrations of pesticide residues on the produce and in the
environment. Most importantly, the Bt farmer experiences a sense of
certainty of the yield with Bt technology than the earlier scenario of
‘spray and pray’.
The Bt technology has
no gene based influence on crop yield. And contrary to popular belief,
the Bt technology does not cause or control any viral. The scenario for
farmers can and will improve only when there are better yields which is
possible with Bt technology, contrary to what anti-GM activists would
ever want to let happen.