Why Indian farmers lust after genetically modified eggplant

When you're going broke spraying pesticides that don't work, built-in resistance to nasty bugs starts looking mighty attractive.

Published July 1, 2008 7:55PM (EDT)

In May, India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved a request by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Co. (Mahyco) to begin "experimental seed production" of genetically modified Bt eggplant. (Thanks to GMO Pundit for the link.)

After China, India is the world's largest producer of eggplant, or brinjal, as it is known on the subcontinent. Primarily cultivated by small farmers, it is plagued by a devastating pest, the fruit and shoot borer. But Bt brinjal incorporates a variation of the cry1Ac gene, which works as potent built-in pesticide against the borer.

At the same meeting at which GEAC approved the production of Bt brinjal seeds, the committee heard testimony from Dr. P.M. Bhargava, who ran through a checklist of reasons why recklessly expanding the number and type of genetically modified crops planted in India might be imprudent. The committee dismissed his concerns, and we could have a nice long argument over whether it was wise to do so. Personally, How the World Works agrees with Dr. Bhargava on at least one issue -- there are fundamentally disturbing issues relating to clear conflicts of interest when governments depend on data provided by a private company for safety assurances and risk assessments.

But never mind that. A survey of Indian farmers published in the Journal of Risk Research in 2005 elicited some illuminating opinions on health risks and other issues associated with genetically modified eggplant. For these farmers, the primary, overriding issue is economic. They are already going broke applying conventional pesticides to which the fruit and shoot borer has developed resistance. If they can save money and boost yields by adopting GM eggplant, they will do so.

A comment from a farmer in Ahmednagar:

"Presently, I am cultivating five acres of eggplant and spending 50,000 to 60,000 rupees on pesticides for these five acres and getting three to four lakhs' income from this acreage. If I grow Bt eggplant and get two to three lakhs' income from just two to three acres, I will enjoy greater benefits. Bt eggplant will also reduce pesticide costs from 50,000 rupees to 10,000 to 12,000…With Bt eggplant, I can reduce my eggplant acreage from five to one-and-a-half acres and devote the remaining land to planting other crops."

These farmers aren't just blindly accepting biotech propaganda (Mahyco is a partner with Monsanto in introducing GM technology into India.) They are quite mindful of what other farmers have witnessed with respect to Bt cotton, a topic explored in some depth last year in How the World Works in "Ganesh and Brahma Bow to a New God" and "The Napster Pirates of Transgenic Biotech." At the grass roots level, Indian cotton farmers have legally and illegally planted Bt cotton varieties because they have seen with their own eyes how yields rise and pesticide costs go down in the short term.

A comment from a farmer in Aurangabad:

"I have seen the results of Bt cotton and the reduction in pesticide application in a neighboring farm. If the same technology is transferred from Bt cotton to Bt eggplant, and if the damage inflicted by the fruit and shoot borer can be reduced by at least 50 percent without the use of pesticides, I can save money and profit from the use of Bt eggplant."

The most disturbing, and yet at the same time enlightening comment of all comes from another Ahmednagar farmer, who notes an unfortunate result of the current practice of intense pesticide application.

"We have to spray pesticides on eggplants every two to three days. Because of this practice, we do not eat the eggplants that we grow. We know that there is a lot of pesticide residue on the eggplants because we are spraying every two to three days! So, we are not eating that stuff. The eggplant is totally made of those chemicals. But we put them directly in the market and sell them anyway. If Bt eggplant is invented, we will be able to eat the eggplants we grow because there will be less chemical residue on the vegetable. I think Bt eggplant is necessary because when we spray every two to three days, what happens is that new diseases are occurring in the human body. People are buying vegetables from the market and eating them. But they do not know what the farmer is spraying on his vegetables."

I have no idea how representative that last farmer's attitudes are of Indian eggplant farmers in general. But the basic calculus seems pretty clear. If Indian farmers can simultaneously cut their costs by cutting their pesticide expenses and boost yields by fending off the fruit and shoot borer, they will pay a premium price for genetically modified eggplant seeds. In a world where all kinds of agricultural inputs are drastically rising in price, that same calculus will likely play out elsewhere, with other farmers and other crops.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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