Bt gene the only saviour

Bt gene the only saviour

UDUPI GULLA: Fighting for survival

Bt gene the only saviour

Dr Shanthu  Shantharam

Contrary to widely held view that the Bt gene in Bt brinjal is going to destroy native biodiversity of brinjals in the country, it the same gene that can save some of the much hyped precious land races or native strains of brinjals, especially the Udupi Gulla. Udupi Gulla is also known as Matti Gulla or Vadiraja Gulla. It derives the name Vadiraja Gulla from an anecdote in which the saint Vadiraja accepted an offering of gulla to his monastery kitchen by a poor farmer/devotee even though brinjal is verboten in religious ceremonies like shraddha (obsequious ceremony). In fact, Udupi Gulla has no religious significance, but has a ceremonial significance, and is served at every paryaya (change of guard ceremony). However, Udupi Gulla is being threatened out of its existence right now because of the deadly Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB), against which no natural resistance is available in the entire germplasm of brinjals. Other than spraying nasty chemical insecticides heavily for FSB control, the only environmentally safe alternative is to spray Bt or engineer the gene into the plant itself, which is what has been done by scientists of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad. This modern day engineering marvel is the only way to preserve Udupi Gulla variety for posterity. Otherwise, there is a real danger of losing it forever within a few decades. The Bt spray is inefficient in effectively controlling the FSB and does not yield consistent and reliable results all the time. The chemical spray is heavy and contaminates soil, air, and is hazardous to farm labour through exposure.

Sci-lies  

The idea that Udupi Gulla will be either contaminated or polluted genetically is scientifically baseless, and invoked to create anxiety in the public mind. Gene transfer in plants happens only through pollination (vertical gene transfer) amongst sexually compatible species, and there is no horizontal gene transfer known in the plant kingdom.

Bt Gulla has been developed by UAS, Dharwad by using licence/royalty free technology donated by Monsanto. Therefore, the Bt technology in Bt brinjal is completely free of any hold by any company. It has been developed and tested for biosafety and environmental impacts for over seven years.

Bt was discovered in 1903 and has been in agricultural use since 1938. It has more than fifty years of safety record, and is used even to this day in organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is a method of growing crops and raising animals without using chemicals or with minimum use of chemicals. Bt crops are ideal fit for organic agriculture and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices. The organic lobby fought tooth and nail to exclude modern GM crops from its agriculture to preserve and protect its business turf. If one hazards a guess about the organic agriculture in India, it can be safely assumed to be less than 0.1%. This is where the rub is. The organic lobby has been struggling in vain to increase its market share for decades, and sees every new technology as a threat to their business interests. The latest happens to be the GM crops technology. In fact, the neo-Gandhian cotton farmers of Gujarat have already adopted Bt cotton into their agriculture, and the organic lobby does not even know it because the cotton lint evades detection as it does not contain any Bt protein or DNA.

Bt brinjal varieties or Bt Gulla will not be expensive as farmers will have choice of Bt hybrids produced by private sector and Bt Open Pollinated Varieties (OPV) produced by the public sector. There is no provision for patenting either seeds, plants or their genes in the Indian patent law or the  Seed law.

Organic agriculture can jolly well survive for the pleasures of a handful of urban rich people who can afford to pay premium for the “feel good” factor. Organic produce has no scientific evidence to show that it is any more nutritious than its counterparts, according to a DFID study in UK.

(The writer is a plant biotechnologist and Senior Research Fellow at Princeton University.)

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