Sunday Celebrity: Dr. Murugesa Boopathi, a protagonist of Bt brinjal
Brinjal originated from India. There are more than 1200 naturally evolved varieties of brinjal around the globe. The Genetically-modified Brinjal, called Bt Brinjal that was brought out for high yields, is in the thick of controversy.
On one side, it is acclaimed as a wonderful technology, capable of achieving the Second Green Revolution in our country; on the other there is explosive out cry by the critics that it is fraud on Indian origin brinjal. And hence right now Bt Brinjal is put on hold in India.
In this backdrop, Asian Tribune met Dr. P. Murugesa Boopathi, Vice Chancellor of the Tamilnadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore. For he is a protagonist of this new variety, which was released by his varsity.
The agricultural scientist settled with this writer at his office last week to dispel doubts about the genetically modified eggplant, the other name of brinjal. He is very clear. He says the critics are motivated by emotions rather than reasoned arguments.
Traditionally our farmers used to go for ‘pureline selection’ of seeds for raising crops. Subsequently, when science developed a cross with similar character was attempted to raise high yields to meet the growing needs of the growing population. The first hybrid was between the Japanicka, a short-duration coarse variety of rice and the fine Indian variety of rice, a long-duration crop. It was IR 20, which carried the characters of both varieties—fine variety and short-duration-- and it became an instant success.
The bio-technology is also one of the methodologies of meeting the challenges of pest resistance, salinity, drought etc. Subsequently the technology developed and through mutatation by radiation, science learnt to alter the genes and got favorable results like high-yield, quality, pest resistance, the soil scientist went on.
He said the Bt is a transgenic technology created by inserting a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The insertion of the gene into the seed cell in young cotyledons has been done through an Agro bacterium mediated vector, along with other genes like promoters, markers etc.
Murugesa Boopathi said the Bt. Technology was first applied to cotton when the incidence of pest attack was unmanageable and there was crop failure and farmers committing suicides. Bt technology was invented in 1996, but was permitted for use only in 2002. “15.6 lakh bales was our production, and after introduction of Bt cotton variety, the production doubled to 32 lakh bales, whereas our requirement is around 25 lakh bales. Now we are in a position to export. Still only 85 per cent is only under Bt cotton,” he said.
Brinjal is cultivated in about five lakh hectares, yielding 8.2 million tonnes annually.
But our requirement is more than that. So what was a success story with the cotton (Bt cotton) thought to be applied to brinjal. In 2006 the government granted permission to the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (MAHYCO), acting under license from global seed giant Monsanto to carry out field trials for Bt. Brinjal.
The Corporate entrepreneurs like Mico, Mansanto, Syngenda went into only high breed varieties where the seeds are meant for one generation only. This was not farmer friendly. So the Tamil Nadu agricultural varsity took to improving the technology in varieties where the farmer can go for next generation crop. And it became successful. For it was designed to meet the needs of farmers.
The TNAU has released four brinjal varieties—CO-2 (Coimbatore brinjal), MDU-1 (Madurai brinjal), KKM-1 (Killikulam brinjal), PLR-1 (Cuddalore brinjal)—all farmer friendly, could be carried to next generation crop, he said.
Murugesa Boopathi said that Bt gene is introduced to control the ‘fruit and shoot borer’. He explained how the butterfly larve if it is not killed by pesticide within three days of its hatching, it enters into the stem, and becomes stem borer. Then any amount of pesticide spray has no effect. The next step to treat the plant is to do the ‘systemic poisoning’ of the plant. If this is applied, for subsquent15 days the residual effect will be there on the plant. In other words there should not be harvest for 15 days. In all these methods it is difficult to draw a line when it is safe to pluck.
Hence science had to move on to the next level of meeting the pest menace. Here came the genetic engineering handy. The gene is altered to handle the stem borer, which cannot be done away with the external spray. The altered gene handles the specific task and nothing else. Hence there is no harm to the consumer; it is non poisonous, the agricultural scientist says.
The Bt brinjal has gone through various tests of toxicity, allergencity, biosafety, agronomic worthiness after it was rigorously and critically evaluated by premier institutions like ICMR, CFTRI, National Institution of Nutrition, Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the control of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Then it was decided to give approval. But nature lovers and Greenpeace activists have protested.
The public consultations attempted by the Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh met with stiff resistance throughout the country. “It is put on hold. But people will see the reason and come around,” the scientist says and adds “The Genetically modified one is better and safe than the ‘systemic poisoned’ ones.”
He was part of high level study committee to Jaffna
Murugesa Boopathi was part of a high level committee formed by the Ministry of External Affairs of India to study agricultural potential in the North Sri Lanka after the war ended. The committee, headed by Dr. S.P. Tiwari, Deputy Director General, Education, had five members including him, the others being Dr. Chengappa of the Bangalore Agricultural University, TNAU’s Director of Agricultural Research Dr. Paramatma and a representative of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).
The committee has suggested, in its report to the Government of India on Mechanization of their agricultural activities, quality seed supplies, soil and water managements, modern fertilizer applications and periodical technical advice. Their note also included rural employment, farm societies, credit societies, and national employment guaranty schemes that are practiced in India, etc.
About his estimation of the soil condition in the conflict zone, which was lying barren for long due to war situation there, he said the soil is fertile, and green revolution can be achieved there, if proper guidance is given.
As the head of agricultural varsity what he is going to do for war-torn people, farmers who lost touch with their skills. He said “we are open to give any assistance educating the farmers if they are sent to the university. They are welcome to experience our experiments and practices.”
He was happy to solve one person’s problem when the high-level team was in Vavunia. One Muslim gentleman approached him with his problem. Although he got admission for joining TNAU at Coimbatore, he was not relieved by his department there . His case he took to the notice of Sri Lankan officials, and saw to it he was relieved to join TNAU. He is presently doing his research at his varsity, the vice chancellor said.
Talking about his varsity he said there are 36 research stations spanning 7 agro climatic zones. 746 crop varieties, 149 farm implements and thousands of technologies have been evolved by the institution for the benefit of the farming community, he said.
Extension centres like Krishi Vigyan Kendras which handles lab-to-land field trials and get back feed-backs, holding frontline demos (FLD) and on farm demo (OFD). He said new scientific advancements are absorbed into agricultural works. He says a TNAU portal has been launched which is posted with all information useful to farmers like Market Intelligence, forecasting what to grow, Agri Horti Marketing infos.
Murugesa Boopathi’s varsity modernization includes a nano technology department and Intellectual Property Rights dept, Medicinal and aromatic department, Remote sensing department, etc.
‘Ponni’ variety of rice was the invention of his varsity. But a Malaysian university patterned it. “We brought this to their notice and stopped their claim. Now IPR cell is monitoring every thing. Earlier we were not patternising anything.”
Prof. Dr. P. Murugesa Boopathi assumed charge on 4 June 2009 as the Vice Chancellor of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU). He graduated B.Sc. (Agriculture) at the Agricultural College and Research Institute, Coimbatore in 1972. He completed his M.Sc. (Ag.) Programme during 1988 and Ph.D. Programme during 1995 in Soil Science and Agricultural Chemistry.
Dr. Murugesa Boopathi has guided many M.Sc. and Ph.D. students. Before becoming Vice-Chancellor, he made outstanding contribution to TNAU and Government of Tamil Nadu by his position as Liaison Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture as well as the Director of Planning and Monitoring. He has taken active role in shaping Government Policies.
He has operated 19 research projects funded by International and National funding agencies worth several crores. Dr. Murugesa Boopathi has published more than 20 research articles in International, and 45 research articles in National Journals. He has documented Soil Science information in more than 25 books. He has visited many countries like Israel, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, U.S.A., Australia, France, Thailand, Japan, China, South Korea and Sri Lanka on various official assignments.
Dr. Murugesa Boopathi hails from rural atmosphere from Salem. His son and daughter-in-law are medical doctors in Chennai.
- Asian Tribune -