India may be the world’s most closely-watched arena for the spread of genetically modified (GM) crops, but it has allowed only one of these crops so far — cotton. Until recently it looked like its first GM food crop would be eggplant — called brinjal in India — modified with a Bt gene to produce an insecticide for the “fruit and shoot borer.” After years of testing and public debate, Bt brinjal had been okayed by the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee and seemed headed for release.
However in February 2010, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh declared an indefinite moratorium. There was a major meeting on the topic in Delhi this week, and many thought that moratorium would be lifted. But the only decision seems to have been indecision, and Bt brinjal remains in limbo.
The struggle over GMO’s is often depicted as an archetypal clash between irresistable force (science, progress, and productivity) and immovable object (Luddites, tradition-bound romantics, and overfed food snobs). But it is becoming increasingly clear that each GMO controversy has its own backstory, and with Bt brinjal the story is particularly interesting. This fight, oddly enough, turns out to have everything to do with Ayurvedic medicine.
But before we get to Ayurveda, let’s recognize that there were other issues in the brinjal fight as well. One factor, perhaps surprising to some with the production-maximizing mindset, is the skepticism that the amount of food produced is really India’s problem. India, after all, is the country that gave us Amartya Sen, and today it has both the world’s largest number of hungry people and an ongoing crisis of overstocked government granaries. At one boisterous public hearing on Bt brinjal, one person asked if “we really need more brinjal” which, upon closer inspection, is a good question. Minister Ramesh’s report points out that the question of “why Bt-brinjal” remains unanswered, as “there does not seem to be any over-riding food security, production shortage or farmer distress arguments” for it. Just last month, the Times of India reported that “heavy flow of [brinjal] produce due to high yields has resulted in a slump in prices” bad enough to lead vendors to abandon their piles of brinjal in disgust.
(Interesting how often these new production-increasing technologies come along during gluts. Monsanto’s first commercial GMO was rBGH, designed to raise milk production … just as the USDA paying dairy farmers $1.8 billion to slaughter cows to reduce overproduction of milk.)
There is also discomfort in India at Monsanto’s increasing control over the seed supply, and not just among the anti-GMO activists. Citing government scientists, Minister Ramesh complained that Monsanto had gained direct or indirect control over “a vast proportion” of the Bt cotton seed now being planted by 90% of Indian cotton farmers. Bt brinjal may have been developed by the Indian company Mahyco and by two Indian agricultural universities, but Ramesh pointed out that Mahyco was partly owned by Monsanto, and there were concerns about who had funded the work by the universities.
But most troubling to Jairam Ramesh was the question of outcrossing — especially the spread of transgenes to wild eggplants. India is a center of diversity for the genus Solanum, with over 1500 known species (one eggplant species is domesticated, the rest wild). The ecological effects of transgenes in the wild species are not well known. The transgenic hybrids would have to be able to make fertile seeds and any new traits would have to be able to spread before there was significant effects. These things vary by plant, environment, and many other factors, and they are hard to study. Sometimes research into these questions is blocked by the very biotech companies who adamantly champion the “science-based approach” to food and farming. (A notorious case was that of ecologist Allison Snow, whose research into outcrossing in Bt sunflower was abruptly stopped by the patent-holder when she started to find that the wild Bt plants thrived.)
Still, several studies have shown that domestic brinjal does outcross with its wild relatives, and the “expert committee” report on which the GEAC based its approval was seriously flawed — at least according to an impressive list of ecologists who expressed their concerns to Ramesh (including Allison Snow, Norman Ellstrand, and David Andow).
The reason this is particularly important is that wild eggplants are commonly used in Ayurveda, and Ayurveda is enormously popular — indeed, it is big business, especially in the prosperous state of Kerala. This ancient, text-based system comprises medical treatments, massage, diet, and wellness retreats, all of which make intensive use of herbs. According to anthropologist Chith Kudlu, who has spent the last 4 years studying the Kerala Ayurveda trade and its changing pharmacopia, around 600 herbs are used in over 500 concoctions, an estimated 80% of which are gathered from the wild. With around 2 million Ayurvedic practicioners, 7900 Ayurvedic manufacturers, and over $2 billion in annual international and domestic trade throughout India, wild herbs take on an unexpected cultural and economic importance. Six different eggplant species are used in Kerala Ayurveda, all growing in the wild and some highly weedy.
Genetic engineering seems to be inherently incompatible with Ayurveda. In 2008 scientists at two institutions genetically modified Brahmi and Kariyat, two herbs commonly used in Ayurveda, to boost their expression of compounds thought to be anti-carcinogenic. The plants were roundly condemned by Ayurvedics, whose formulations are based on the holistic character of plants and synergistic effects of plant combinations rather than on individual phytochemicals.
Kudlu points out that since wild eggplants are used in both Ayurvedic food and medicines, a proper assessment of potential impacts of transgenes would have to be different than conventional food analysis. She notes that
Unlike food, medicine is given in highly concentrated form, and it is given to sick people whose tolerance for some compounds may be compromised. Ayurvedic medicines are also polyherbal, involving interactions of dozens or hundreds of compounds. Ayurvedic medicine is also prepared in water-soluble, alcohol-soluble, and fat-soluble forms, each of which extracts different sets of metabolites. All these variables will have to be taken into account in conducting toxicity tests.
Kerala’s chief minister (governor), V.S. Achuthanandan, was prominent among those who wrote to Ramesh as he was making up his mind, arguing that Kerala
is an important centre of diversity of medicinal plants and heritage of traditional medicines like Ayurveda. Serious concern has already been expressed by the Ayurveda practitioners on GM research being undertaken on various crops… the State has already declared an Organic Farming Policy, Strategy and Action Plan in 2008. Accordingly, the entire food crops would be converted to organic within five years and the cash crops within another five years. This will, apart from helping to feed the people with non-poisoned food, enhance our export possibilities with a high premium. However, introduction of GM crops will certainly defeat the very purpose of organic farming, because GM crops/foods are more disastrous than those from crops raised using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It would also kill the State’s trade prospects.
The best course of action, wrote Achuthanandan, would be a 50 year moratorium.
Ramesh’s moratorium does not have a set length, but it was indeed justified in part on fears that Bt brinjal would endanger the plants’ “medicinal properties due to loss of synergy, differences in the alkaloids and changes in other active principles.”
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See my article with Chith, “The Trials of Genetically Modified Food: Bt Eggplant and Ayurvedic Medicine in India“, in Food Culture & Society.