Amid Big Promises, Plans Proceed For First GMO Foodcrop Release In India
India - India is about to serve as host to a newly developed genetically modified eggplant, the first ever GMO foodcrop for India. The plant has been genetically modified to contain a pesticide that will make it, proponents say, resistant to the fruit and shoot borer. Researchers admit they don't know if the GMO eggplant will continue to resist the target insect in the field and for how long; whether the Bt eggplant cross pollinates with other eggplants in the field and how far the Bt plants should be from other eggplant fields and whether nontarget insect populations are affected in the long term.
The GMO plant underwent preliminary tests in the environment. No human trials have been conducted in the US or India. Eggplant is a popular crop in the subtropics and tropics, especially in India and Bangladesh, where it is grown on about 1.5 million acres.
The GMO eggplant was developed in a joint effort between Cornell university, Sathguru Management Consultants of India and funding from the US Agency for international development. The developers of the genetically modified food anticipate that the eggplant will be under cultivation in India by 2009. While it is the first food crop, it isn't the first GMO crop. Farmers have grown a highly controversial, and commercially problamatic genetically altered cotton in India since 2002.
The GMO cotton has been the center of controversy and unexpected crop failures. A leading Indian newsmagazine, Frontline, reported in 2006 that farmers were promised that GMO cotton would make a huge difference in yields and profits. Instead they found a 'difference' they neither wanted nor expected: "The `difference', an unexpected one: the fields stand desolate; much of the cotton crop died prematurely. Many farmers have not even bothered to remove the skeleton of the crop that promised "white gold". The cotton farmers of Madhya Pradesh's Nimar region are known to be a prosperous lot. This year, however, they are feeling betrayed by the seed companies that sold them Bt cotton."
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The engineered eggplant expresses a natural insecticide derived from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), making it resistant to the fruit and shoot borer (FSB), a highly destructive pest. The tiny larvae account for up to 40 percent of eggplant crop losses each year in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, and other areas of South and Southeast Asia.
Cornell researchers collaborated on the development of the Bt eggplant in 2002. A partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds, is hopping to commercialize the genetically modified fruit by 2009.
Some tests for the Bt eggplant have been conducted in India, in greenhouses and presently field trials. Preliminary tests suggest the eggplant appears nontoxic to fish, chickens, rabbits, goats, rats and cattle. Company representitives say it is nonallergenic. Promoters say future tests will see if the plant will continue to resist the target insect in the field and for how long; whether the Bt eggplant cross pollinates with other eggplants in the field and how far the Bt plants should be from other eggplant fields; whether nontarget insect populations are affected in the long term; and how yields compare with those of other eggplant varieties.
Similar to the promises of the promoters of the Bt cotton, promoters of the GMO food speculate that the Bt eggplant will reduce insecticide use by 30 percent while doubling the yield of marketable fruit.
India and Bangladesh together claim they'll plant 110,000 acres of the FSB-resistant eggplant commercially by the end of 2010 and 650,000 acres by 2015.
Some economists involved with the project speculate that Bt eggplant could result in lower prices for consumers, higher yields for farmers and, by 2015, boost the Indian economy by $411 million and the Bangladeshi economy by $37 million. Similar optimistic projections were made for Bt cotton.