by Najma Sadeque
Genetically modified vegetables are being cropped everywhere despite worldwide resistance! Suddenly you’ll have to worry about every bit of food you put in your mouth.
‘Bagharey baigan’, a master dish, takes a lot of skill and care, not easily prepared in huge quantities, which is why you don’t find it in hotel buffets, and from very few restaurants and caterers. For those who make it well for family or friends, it’s really a labour of love – and rightfully, a matter of pride. When served, most people forget about the accompanying dishes. This is a treat that’s best enjoyed all by itself. Yet ‘bagharey baigan’ is not the only way that brinjal is relished. It’s so versatile, entire cookbooks – especially in the Middle East – are devoted to it. They can’t live without it. The simplest and quickest way is to fry thick, round slices coated in a simple, turmeric, red chilli and salt mix. If you add the optional dab of dahi (yoghurt) when serving, you’re done with a lot of yum. There’s also ‘baigan raita’ which can accompany anything. In Bangladesh and West Bengal (India), locals delight in the silt-grown, bitter-free brinjal,- grilling whole brinjals over coals or a ‘tava’ until the skin shrivels and easily peels off. It’s then mashed into ‘bhurta’ and seasoned with finely-chopped raw onions, fiery green chillies, salt, and a drop of mustard oil. In Pakistan, brinjals don’t always lose enough of the innate bitterness to make this possible. More spices are called for.
Colour me purple, and other shades:
We think of brinjal being deep purple or purplish-black, but they also come in white and a range of shades in between including bright orange (Turkish), or green (Thai), or purple or green with white streaks; even light violet, and white. They come in all sizes too – from the tiny pea-sized growing in clusters like grapes, to egg-size and golf-ball size, all the way up to weighing almost half-a kilo each. The only thing you can’t do is eat them raw: the natural chemicals will give you bad digestion.
For tummy-flattening and health:
Brinjal is naturally low in calories, fat and sodium, at the same time rich in fibre, calcium, vitamin B6, vitamin A, and other nutritional goodies with heavy scientific names. If, however, you are seriously dieting, drop those dishes that include oil generously. Forget about deep-frying – brinjal absorbs oil like blotting paper. Pureed and spiced is your best bet, with a teaspoon dipped in rapeseed (‘sarson’) oil or olive oil. In India and other adjoining countries, brinjal is also used in ayurvedic medicine to cure diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Too many parents lazily allow children to get addicted to processed junk food and not getting them accustomed to vegetables; a late start makes it difficult to acquire healthy tastes. But fried brinjals, or as sandwich spread, are a good start. Other tasty variations are made by first coating the brinjal with bread crumbs or a flour and egg mix. Brinjal is often incorrectly referred to as a poor man’s vegetable, considering that it has earned the title of ‘King of Vegetables’ among the middle-class and rich, cutting across all income levels and social status.
We can’t take safe, natural food for granted any more:
For peasants and home gardeners, brinjal is a blessing because it’s a hardy crop that persists even during droughts, and thrives in most of the country. The problem arises when grown commercially in monoculture – a single crop over a huge space – because, like any monoculture, it becomes even more vulnerable to insect pests and diseases. Farms growing mixed food crops on the same plot get better results because the pests of some crops are food for predator insects. That’s how farmers plant in certain combinations whose pests and predators ‘help’ one another. So, it was never an insurmountable problem; farmers also devised natural pesticides harmless to living beings. Following monoculture forced by colonizers, the next evil arrived about 45 years ago, as chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Users strangely overlooked the fact that apart from being unnecessary and expensive, they were extremely hazardous to humans and severely damaged the environments. Today so much chemical is sprayed on fruits and vegetables, they are unsafe to eat unless thoroughly washed and peeled. Yet most of the insecticide doesn’t reach the pests anyway – the larvae hide within the shoots and fruits.
If you are what you eat, can you turn into a genetically-modified human?
As if that were not bad enough, genetically-modified crops (GM) appeared in Pakistan recently for the first time, although it’s supposed to be on a limited, experimental basis for now. For the unfamiliar, a GM crop is a plant into which an alien gene has been forcibly inserted. It can be from a totally unrelated plant or animal, or an insect or a microorganism visible only under the microscope. Essentially, a foreign gene has been put where it does not naturally belong. In nature this simply cannot happen. Nature has been so designed to maintain strict barriers between species that cannot be crossed. Birds, animals, fish, humans can only breed with their own kind, not with others. This barrier has been broken by scientists in laboratories who have never grown food naturally in the field. (They have even mixed up human genes with vegetables, fish and other animal genes.) Here they have developed a new variety of brinjal to try and stop farmers from saving or exchanging seed from their previous harvest and buy from private companies only.
In the case of brinjal, Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, inserted a toxic gene from a bacterium that lives in the soil, called Bt for short. Again, unnecessarily. Because in the natural state, Bt attacks the pest during the growing season anyway, after which it disappears. Monsanto thought they could do one better by making the poison a part of brinjal’s genetic make-up. Instead of an outside bacteria going away after killing the pest seasonally, the entire Bt brinjal is made genetically, inherently toxic. By consuming it over time, we could be subjecting ourselves to slow poisoning. So, how do we know Bt brinjal is safe to eat? We don’t, any more than we know that cottonseed oil made from oil from Bt cotton is safe for human consumption. No reliable long-term studies have been done, and whatever independent short-term studies exist, are discouraging. The only supposed studies are by Monsanto itself, which cannot be relied on. Why did US-based Monsanto choose brinjal when it is not even native to America and not eaten much there? For the same reason it earlier chose cotton to turn into Bt cotton. They wanted to capture the vast multi-billion dollar cotton farmers market for Bt cottonseed and chemicals. They succeeded in America by buying up the 40-odd large and medium-sized cottonseed producing companies so that natural seed was no longer available, and farmers had no choice but to buy Bt seeds. They’re trying to do the same in South Asia. In India, poor farmers were misled by false advertising and propaganda, and the high price of Bt farming led to heavy debt and mass suicides – a quarter of a million over the past decade. With Bt cotton suffering falling yields and poisoned soils and people, Monsanto went onto Bt vegetables. They chose brinjal first because it is the most widely eaten vegetable in the subcontinent.
Making money from manipulation
Who needs a new brinjal variety when there are already over 2500 varieties in South Asia alone which is the historic centre of its origin, each adapted to local or regional climate, geography and other aspects of nature? After China, India is the second-largest brinjal grower, with over 1.4 million farmers growing many varieties on over as many acres. They feed over a billion people. That’s the size of market that the insatiably greedy Monsanto corporation is after.
Bt brinjal doesn’t even have any variety to it; it is just that one boring and highly suspect kind. Monsanto actually expects people to sacrifice the existing abundant variety – around for thousands of years – and embrace their GM brinjal! Like other GM crops, Bt brinjal can’t even grow on its own; farmers have to buy the complete package of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that accompany Bt seeds. The GM seed has to be bought at several times the price of natural seed, and the chemicals also cost many times more than the use of compost and manure. Because Monsanto has patented the seed, the farmer cannot save and use it for the next planting. Even if he did, he would get a lousy crop. But the farmers and civil society in India reacted strongly. On the grounds that Bt brinjal was not only unsafe to eat, but cost millions of livelihoods, they finally got it banned. That’s what we need to do too, starting with Bt cotton, which Monsanto Pakistan is currently trying to bulldoze through. Bt brinjal will be the next step. But Monsanto hasn’t stopped. It’s still working on some 45 more genetically-modified vegetables despite worldwide resistance! Like mad scientists on the rampage. Suddenly you’ll have to worry about every bit of food you put in your mouth.
This article was published in the The News, You Magazine on October 8, 2013