Recently, Greenpeace in the Philippines dressed up as genetically engineered (GE) monster crops and filed a case before the Supreme Court asking to stop the on-going field trials of the GE insect resistant Bt eggplant, on the grounds that such field trials violate and threaten the constitutional rights of Filipinos to a healthy environment. That legal action sparked a public debate around the environmental safety of GEBt eggplant (or brinjal) in the Philippines.
In India, the National Biodiversity Authority recently decided to prosecute bio industry company Monsanto for using Indian brinjal varieties for commercial purposes without permission. The action is intended to send a clear message that bio piracy of India’s plant genetic resources will not go unpunished. This move comes on top of an existing moratorium on the commercialization of GE Bt brinjal in India.
So why is there so much attention being placed on eggplants in India and the Philippines?
The exact area in which the eggplant was first domesticated from its wild relative, the ‘centre of origin’, is not exactly known. However, the centres of diversity, where the greatest diversity of cultivated types occur, include the whole of South and Southeast Asia, from India to China, as well as the Philippines and Indonesia.
It is in these centres of diversity that brinjal and its relatives have formed a complex and intricate mix of wild, weedy and cultivated relatives and where they are still grown, cooked and eaten by the locals.
The introduction of GE Bt brinjal in these countries threatens the genetic integrity of both the eggplant and its wild relatives. Genetic contamination can result in insect resistance spreading through local varieties and wild eggplants, possibly leading to the creation of super weeds, as shown by an independent study commissioned by Greenpeace. In addition, the GE Bt protein could have possible effects on non-target organisms, such as beneficial insects and butterflies.
Centres of diversity represent the world’s biological and cultural heritage. They are common public good providing farmers and scientists with a broad genetic base from which plants for future generations can be sourced to overcome pest epidemics and diseases or to adapt to our changing climate.
The biodiversity of eggplant exists in the fields of farmers, local and indigenous communities – primarily in the centres of diversity. All the more reason why GE Bt brinjal must not be released into the environment, as it can pollute the genetic make-up of the unique and diverse seeds available kept by farmers and communities over generations. Once released, there is no stopping the spread.
The cause for concern is not limited to India and the Philippines, as centres of diversity must be protected by all of us.
We owe it to future generations to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of the global gene pool, which sustains food for all.
Didit Pelegrina is Senior Campaigner for Sustainable Agriculture and Genetic Engineering of Greenpeace International in Asia.