Eggplants are found in many colors: green, white, purple, yellow, even striped. They are shaped like cucumbers or apples. They are eaten in Italy as melanzane alla parmigiana, in France as ratatouille, and in the Middle East as baba ghanoush.
My husband Raoul usually grows Imperial Black Beauty, Rosa Bianca, and the hybrids Beatrice and Nadia. We cook them shortly after harvest:
2 Eggplants, diced into 1/2″ cubes
3 tbsp Olive oil
1 Clove of garlic, smashed and chopped
1/2 tsp Chile flakes
1. Sauté smashed and chopped clove of garlic in the olive oil.
2. Add the chile flakes to the pan.
3. Add the eggplant to the pan, and sauté until the eggplant is very soft and
4. Add salt to taste.
Most of us love eggplant, but to find a true eggplant connoisseur, go to India.
In India, this fruit, closely related to tomato, is known as the “King of the vegetables”. For Indians, eggplant (called Brinjal) is second only to potato in importance in the diet. It can be cooked with tomato, and seasoned with cumin, turmeric garlic and ginger (Bhurtha) or with cauliflower and potatoes in a spicy sauce (Aloo Gobhi Masala) or hundreds of other ways.
And Indians don’t only eat eggplant, they grow it. A lot of it. Indians are second only to China in the amount of eggplant produced.
No wonder then, when the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), gave its go-ahead to the commercial cultivation of genetically engineered brinjal in October 2009, that the public took interest. After all, what would it mean for food and farming in India?
GE Brinjal is a transgenic eggplant that expresses gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This variety was designed to give the plant resistance against insects like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis). It was developed by Indian scientists at the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO).
The Fruit and shoot borer larvae feed inside the shoots and fruits, retarding the vegetative growth. In high pest pressure years, over 90% of the fruits can be infected, and yield reductions up to 60% have been reported.
Moderately infected fruits are often still marketed but are associated with significant price discounts.
Pesticides to control this insect account for a significant share of the total amounts of pesitcides used in India. At least two of the insecticides used on eggplant in India are legally banned in many other countries. Twenty-five percent of eggplant farmers have suffered personally from acute pesticide poisonings. This number does not include poisonings that affect hired farm laborers.
In Mahyco sponsored trials of eight Bt eggplant hybrids, a 42% reduction in pesticide usage was observed. Field experiments on these hybrids were also carried out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, as part of the regulatory evaluation process (as far as I can tell, though, these results have not yet been published). These studies suggest that Bt eggplant would significantly reduce insecticide applications, increase effective yields and likely to bring about significant benefits for farmers’ healths. Less spraying means fewer poisonings
Who benefits besides farmworkers? Simulations show that the aggregate economic surplus gains of Bt hybrids could be around US$108 million per year. Consumers and Mayhco will also capture a large share of these gains.
After vociferous public protests, the Indian Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, imposed a moratorium on the cultivation of Bt Brinjal. Ramesh stated that the moratorium will last “for as long as it is needed to establish public trust and confidence”.
With such dramatic reductions in the use of insecticides and predicted clear benefits for farmers, consumers and the environment, why is there so much opposition?
For one thing, Mahyco is partly owned by the US multinational Monsanto. As far as I can tell from comments on my blog, noone seems to like multinational corporations unless they are run by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
Secondly there is concern that the diversity of eggplant will be reduced if most farmers plant the BT-Brinjal. This is a valid concern. After all, there are currently as many as 2,500 varieties of brinjals cultivated in India. The National Gene Bank in New Dehli has accessions for nearly 3,550. If the Bt Brinjal reduces costs and pesticide poisonings, most higher income farmers that can afford the hybrids will almost certainly adopt the new seed.
To address this concern, there is an interesting public-private partnership in the making that will allow for development of low cost open-pollinated varieties. This would make the GE eggplant more accessible to resource-poor farmers, who are less likely to buy the hybrids.
Thirdly some consumers worry that BT eggplant is not safe to eat despite the fact there has not been a single case of harm to humans or the environment from GE crops in over 10 years of cultivation.
As Sid notes on his blog, food safety may not be the main issue.
“In my opinion the opposition to Bt-Brinjal has much more to do with ideology, and has very little to do with public safety. In general food safety in India is very poor. Every year in India some 400,000 children below the age of five die from diarrhea caused by contaminated food and water. It is surreal to see activists raise worries about the remote possibility of someone in the distant future getting allergies and rashes from eating Bt-Brinjal, while being totally unconcerned about thousands of people dying every day from ordinary food and water contamination”.
Former World Food Prize winner M.S. Swaminathan who has often advocated the use of biotechnology to address food shortages in the coming decades has said in an interview that the Indian government should use the extra time given by the moratorium to put in place a credible, effective, and transparent regulatory system for the benefit of India, and to conduct tests in a manner that earns the public trust.
This is a recipe we certainly need,