It is a vegetable (many call it fruit) native to India, grown since prehistoric times. Its first written record is found in Qi min yao shu, the 6th century Chinese agricultural treatise, though. The British call it aubergine, the Americans, eggplant. And for English speakers on the Indian subcontinent, South Africa and Malaysia it is brinjal, which is closer to the Sanskrit and Persian names from which aubergine is derived.
China is the top producer of eggplants, with India a distant second. But perhaps India grows a wider variety of the vegetable, from the pigeon-egg sized globules to the oval giants weighing a kilogram each. In India, you get them in colors purple, black, green and even white.
It is available in every part of India, and almost every province has its own special eggplant dish or two. It is savored mostly as an independent ingredient or with other vegetables, but in West Bengal province (and Bangladesh) people cook it with fish with divine results. In fact, nowhere is the eggplant such an integral part of the cuisine as it is in West Bengal and Bangladesh. I know it for certain because West Bengal is my province.
Readers must have got an idea by now that eggplant does not need fiddling with in India. Farmers have been happy with it for hundreds, if not thousands, of years despite the occasional attack of pests, mostly soft-bodied larvae.
It is the (life or) death of these pests that is at the core of a controversy raging in India for the past few months. The controversy is over the introduction of Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), or genetically modified (GM), eggplants. Supporters argue that the GM variety will make the vegetable resistant to a pest known as fruit and shoot borer by introducing the pesticide within the plant.
Environmentalists, farmers and consumers are not convinced. Green activists smelled a rat when they found that India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had given its recommendation for commercialization of the eggplant without considering the dissent of three of the committee members and ignoring independent scientists' advice.
Among those whose advice has been ignored is French scientist, Prof Gilles-Eric Seralini of the Committee for Independent Research and Information on genetic Engineering. He was the first person to conduct an independent assessment of Monsanto-Mahyco's dossier on toxicity, and told the Indian authorities that GM eggplant was unfit for human consumption. Not only does the GM eggplant have lower food value, but also it could cause diseases, he said.
Soon after the GEAC decision, consumers, farmers and green activists across the country took to the streets in protest against GM eggplants, forcing Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh to hold public hearings in major cities. Though Ramesh has assured "people of independent and transparent decision over Bt brinjal", the protests continue.
Green activists and agricultural scientists have asked Ramesh to scrap the plan. One agricultural scientist has said: "There are several reasons to oppose commercial cultivation of the BT brinjal. Not only will it harm the environment, it will also rob the farmers of their livelihood as they will have to depend on seeds imported by multinational companies."
Some of the provincial governments have already declared that they would not want Bt eggplant seeds to be sold within their territory for fear of antagonizing farmers and consumers. And they are right. GM plants make farmers dependent on highly expensive seeds. They kill native plants and reduce biodiversity. And once they start failing, farmers who borrow huge amounts to buy seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, have no hope for life. Thousands of them have killed themselves in India alone over the past few years after their Bt cotton crops failed.
The Bt fire is raging across the land that gave the world the eggplant, because multinationals are out to cash in on the developing world's agriculture. Let's hope the land that gave the first treatise on the plant guards against it.
(China Daily 02/01/2010 page9)