Published on: 10:53AM Nov 25, 2009
The future of Indian agriculture rests on the shoulders of the unglamorous eggplant. Farmers have the ability to take a big step forward with biotechnology--but only if the government in New Delhi will allow us to do so. If it doesn’t let us grow biotech eggplants, it may not permit us to grow any of the biotech crops that my country needs.
In North America, eggplants are considered something of a delicacy. In Europe, they even go by an appropriately French-sounding name: aubergine.
In my country, this big purple vegetable is an everyday staple crop. We produce millions of tons of it each year. The Indian farmers who grow it outnumber the total population of the U.S. state of Texas. We call it “brinjal.”
Years ago, the Green Revolution transformed agriculture in the developing world, especially India. Although we face many challenges in feeding a nation of more than 1 billion people, we would not have experienced anything like the success we enjoy today without the Green Revolution’s improvements in seed, irrigation, and equipment.
Now we stand on the verge of a Gene Revolution. Farmers in the western hemisphere are enjoying its bounties, but so far it has barely touched my country.
There is one exception: cotton. Seven years ago, India approved GM cotton for cultivation. Today, farmers plant and harvest more than 20 million acres of it. The practice has spread quickly because it makes so much sense. All of my neighbors who grow it report that their yields have gone up and their pesticide use has gone down. They wish the seeds were less expensive, but they have learned the benefits of biotechnology on a firsthand basis.
These advantages now can pass into brinjal. Scientists know how to grow GM brinjal--a variety of the plant that naturally resists pests, using the same principle that has improved cotton.
The potential gains are enormous. Brinjal takes a long time to grow, which means that it is more vulnerable to pest attacks than other types of crops. What’s more, many of our farmers are poorly educated. They don’t know how to get the most out of existing pesticides. They’re at the mercy of dealers who too often provide them with improper instructions and inferior products.
GM Brinjal has a built-in resistance to pests. That makes it an inherently better product. At the same time, it’s actually easier to grow because it requires fewer applications of pesticides.
Because of these qualities, GM brinjal will help us produce better and safer food. Prices for consumers will fall. We’ll improve our ability to fight malnutrition, which is a major problem for the people of India.
Last month, a government body called the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee declared that GM brinjal is safe for human consumption. The decision was based upon extensive study that involved agricultural research institutes, universities, and a pair of expert panels, including one appointed by the Supreme Court.
So the science is proven. All that’s left is the politics: Before Indian farmers and consumers can benefit from GM brinjal, the minister of the environment, Jairam Ramesh, must grant his own approval. According to one news report, his office is now being “bombarded with faxes and emails” from “activist organizations such as Greenpeace.” They despise almost all new technology.
At the same time, another account says that “there is no organized lobby of growers to push for commercialization” of GM brinjal.
That may be. Yet there is a desperate need for this important product. It will help address the looming problem of income disparity between the rich and the poor as well as between urban areas and rural regions.
I know that it will improve my position, as a man who farms 120 acres of brinjal and other vegetables in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The fate of India will depend upon the ability of small farmers such as myself to produce enough food. Success will require the acceptance of advanced tools used by farmers in the developed world. Our choice as a nation is to embrace the future and accept GM brinjal, or to turn back the clock by letting political pressure groups trump the calm judgment of science.
Rajesh Kumar farms 120 acres in two regions of India, using irrigation to grow brinjal, sweet corn, baby corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. He sells fresh produce directly to consumers through kiosks at several locations and runs a food processing unit for canning of vegetables. Mr. Kumar attended the 2009 TATT Global Farmer Roundtable and is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network.