Aubergine on Modi’s menu: was it Bt brinjal?

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India’s prime minister Norendra Modi’s eventful two-day visit to Bangladesh ended on June 7. Modi is a vegetarian and, therefore as a host, the Bangladesh government, particularly prime minister Sheikh Hasina herself, took special care to select different kinds of vegetarian foods. The Hindustan Times reported on June 7 — ‘100 veg dishes for Modi’ including special daal, khichdi, dhokla and Bangladesh’s special sweets. In The NDTV news, it was elaborated further, such as for starters, there was a Gujarati speciality, kaman dhokla, accompanied with a yoghurt corriander chutney. For the main course, there were the north Indian favourites such as paneer butter masala, vegetable shammi kebabs and dal tadka. The menu also served some Bengali specialities such as patal dolma (homemade ricotta-filled pointed gourd in a smooth coconut curry) and khichdi (the Bengali version tempered with mustard seeds and ghee). The mishti (sweet) sampler for desert has rasgullas, mishti dai and fruit. In the Bangladeshi media, the menu was given in a few Bengali newspapers. Jugantar reported on June 7, calling it ‘elahi bandobasta’ — grand arrangement that the Indian prime minister’s menu included 19 items including vagareli khichdi (with masur dal and vegetables), Bangladeshi specialities dalna, sajna data with mustard, mango chutney, bhendi curry cooked with milk (Modi’s favourite), Gujarati speciality khatta dhokla along with fresh fruit, pithas, payesh, kheer and sandesh. Bangladesh’s prime minister’s office made sure by contacting Delhi and the Dhaka high commission about the favourite dishes of the very important guest Modi. Bangladesh has many good vegetables but Bangladeshi chefs are not very much specialised in making vegetarian dishes. Mixing fish and vegetables is the most common practice. Bengali families use at least a small chingri (shrimp) in the vegetable dish which makes it a non-vegetarian. Unfortunately, the Indian prime minister had to miss fish delicacies of Bangladesh, specially the hilsa. However, on June 6, there was the banquet held in honour of the Indian prime minister, hosted by Sheikh Hasina at the Grand Ball Room at the Sonargaon Hotel. In the banquet,  the menu (which is now available online) shows that the main course included vegetable shammi kebab, paneer butter masala, patal dolma, bagara baingan and dal tadka accompanied by Hyderabadi vegetable biriyani, kichdi and chapati, nan, etc. It means that Indian prime minister was served with an aubergine dish (bagara baingan). In the menu, it is described as ‘eggplant simmered in a sweet and sour tamarind and nut gravy’. It must be a delicious curry. The question is whether this aubergine was a local variety, bought from the market of Dhaka or brought from India? If it was from Dhaka, then the agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury had the opportunity to supply one of the nine varieties of Bt brinjal that are now supposed to be on the market. Even if those are not labelled, the agriculture minister could have made special efforts to bring the Bt brinjal directly from the fields of the 108 selected farmers cultivating in the second round and claiming to be successful. It would have been ‘safe’, according to her because ‘no pesticide’ is used although field information shows that several brands of pesticides had to be used for disease attacks on leaves and stems, etc. If for any reason, Bt brinjal was not part of the banquet menu, then several questions come to mind. Was it because Bt brinjal is transgenic — a bacterial gene-inserted vegetable? If so, then perhaps the labelling of genetically modified baingans (aubergines) is even more necessary to state that normal aubergines, but not the Bt brinjals, can be consumed by vegetarians. If it is not a problem for the vegetarians, Modi would have been happy to have such a dish made with Bt brinjal which is actually linked to an Indian company Mahyco although it could not be cultivated in India because of a moratorium. On the contrary, Sheikh Hasina recently (May 20) was honoured with the citation in recognition of ‘her overwhelming contribution to the development of agriculture sector and ensuring food security in Bangladesh’ by the Cornell University of the United States. She was actually honoured because she allowed Bt brinjal amid protests and concerns expressed by farmers’ groups, environmentalists and health activists. Hasina thanked Cornell University for the innovation of the BT brinjal. It is already known that Monsanto in collaboration with Cornell University, decoded the genome sequence of Bt brinjal and allowed the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute to use the technology through its subsidiary Mahyco in India. So it was an excellent opportunity for both the prime minister and the agricultural minister of Bangladesh to offer cooked Bt brinjal as bagara baingan to show both the culinary and scientific performance of this genetically modified vegetable. It seems that bagara baingan was not cooked with a Bt brinjal. If not, then we do not need any more proof that Bt brinjal health hazards are still unknown and, therefore, Modi was not put under risk. That is certainly a very wise idea not to create any health hazard for the visiting Indian prime minister. However, it reaffirms the apprehension of the opponents of Bt brinjal, who have expressed worries about health, environmental and biosafety concerns of BT brinjal cultivation in Bangladesh.

Source: New Age