OUR native brinjal or begun in Bangla, has been genetically modified by introducing an alien gene into is DNA(genetic material). The modified version of this popular vegetable called Bt brinjal has the ability to fight its worst enemy, a pest called Fruit Shoot Borer (FSB).
The prefix Bt comes from the name of a soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, in short, Bt, which has been in use by farmers since long as a pesticide. Bt's pesticidal property comes from an endotoxin, which is a crystalline protein stored in its body. The toxicity of this protein is not expressed until some specific receptors in the gut of the pest insect act on them. This happens only after the moth larvae called FSB ingests the protein while feeding on Bt brinjal plant.
What is poison to an insect may not always be toxic for humans, like aerosol kills mosquitoes but not us.
Human gut does not function in the same way as that of the FSB. So, Bt protein cannot harm humans.
This transgenic variety of brinjal promises to do away with farmers'woes; they will no more have to fear the pest that destroys most of their brinjal crop in the field before it is harvested. Obviously, it should be a good news for both the grower of this staple vegetable and its consumer.
So far so good. But questions remain.
Is this GM brinjal completely foolproof without any negative consequence, if not on human health, then on the plant environment? For there are people who are afraid of unforeseen fallouts of tinkering with nature and so are against the use of such transgenic products in the real world beyond the four walls of laboratory.
The conservatives range from religious quarters, traditionalists, environmentalists as well as political groups, the latter being suspicious of multinational companies that produce and trade in GM crop seeds. In Bangladesh, anti-GM pro-Green lobbies have been voicing their concerns vehemently opposing cultivation of Bt brinjal on a commercial scale. Their argument is that the alien gene from a bacterium used in Bt brinjal may be a potential monster. Though we have already tried to explain why the endotoxin in the GM brinjal may not harm humans, they are not going to buy it so readily. Then there are other kinds of fear, too. What would happen if this pest resistant gene of Bt brinjal passes horizontally to other plants making them also pest-resistant and creating the dreaded super weed? Or opposite may also happen; say, the pest itself becomes resistant to Bt brinjal's power to kill it!
Scientists who work in the field of genetic engineering are aware of these fears and concerns. They know the risks involved in uncontrolled handling of genetic materials that contains the hereditary information about an organism and the instructions for its growth. They know exactly where the dangers of any biological pollution lie and know how to reduce or eliminate those risks. Genetic engineering is a new tool in the hands of scientists and they have been working hard to perfect it. Meanwhile, they have made great strides in mapping the genomes of different plants, animals and humans.
Fears associated with a new science and its discoveries are also nothing new. Sceptics have strong points against technology, industry and new inventions of science and many of those are justified. Industry has polluted environment, fertilisers weakened soil's natural fertility, and pesticides have poisoned soil and water and wreaked havoc on the delicate ecosystem in which traditional farming thrived. But then we cannot also reverse history and return to the horse and buggy days.
Despite its negative sides, we cannot dismismiss the fact that it is this fertiliser, the chemical pesticide and mechanical irrigation that enabled our farmers to feed a population that has more than doubled since independence. And this is true also globally. The world population now at 7 billion will increase to 9 billion within the next four decades. By 2030, the global demand for food is going to increase by an estimated 40 per cent. Neither the traditional, nor the current level of non-GM scientific agriculture can hope to face these emerging challenges of feeding humanity.
We have a new scientific tool in hand that promises to make crops resistant to pests, weeds, salinity, drought , floods and other kinds of natural threats. Since 1997, China's farmers, for example, have been able to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 80 per cent in their cotton fields through introduction of GM cotton. So does Bt brinjal promise to reduce farmers' dependency on chemical pesticides to a marked degree.
The fears associated Bt brinjal or any other kinds of GM crops are many. And we cannot also instantly allay all those fears.
Caution is necessary. But over-cautiousness should not paralyse our senses in making informed and intelligent choices. And sheer fear cannot be any good reason for rejecting outright a product of scientific advancement.
The writer is Editor, Science&Life, The Daily Star.