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Eggplant of doom?

A genetically modified aubergine riles India. But it could help solve a hunger crisis.

The GM eggplant strain has been developed by American agrichemical giant Monsanto with its Indian partner Mahyco. The crop, its promoters claim, can double yields and reduce pesticide use by nearly half.

This is not India’s first GM crop. Earlier, Monsanto introduced Bt cotton in the farming belts of central India where debt-ridden and desperate farmers were committing suicide. Supporters of GM crops attribute the recent spike in cotton production in India to the introduction of Bt cotton.

But groups like Greenpeace are saying the risks to human health as well as the environment have not been investigated thoroughly enough. They fear that the introduction of Bt brinjal will open the flood gates for a host of other foods such as bananas, potatoes, chickpea, peanut, okra, tomato and others that are currently in field trials.

Opponents say that while it is wrong to spray pesticides on food crops, it is even worse to genetically engineer pest-resistance into the food on the dining table.

But advocates of GM foods see the eggplant as a forerunner of a new biotechnology wave in India’s agricultural market. They view gene manipulation as a means to make crops withstand drought, disease and pests.

The debate over GM food comes at a time when India is facing a huge food crisis as it struggles to meet the growing challenges of a burgeoning population, dwindling farming land area and reduced yield from climate change.

India’s small farms are crumbling under the stress of gambling with nature. This year, for instance, critical monsoon rains have failed in some parts of the country while other parts have been submerged under floods.

Impending shortages have pushed up food prices and the government is now battling inflation. A shortage-induced food panic in India has the unnerving potential to disrupt the world markets.

Traditional crop breeding methods are time-consuming and often inaccurate, says Professor M.S. Swaminathan, who is acknowledged as the pioneer of India’s first food revolution in the 1970s that made the country self-reliant.

The proponents of GM foods say that such food crops can form the foundation of a second food revolution. Critics maintain that such manipulation can be a large scale health hazard. Weighed against the grim scenario of hunger and rising food prices in India, the debate is both emotional and explosive.