Impact of genetically modified food

The issue is not only about BT brinjal…It is about the systematic destruction of the Bharatiaya agricultural system. First they said that our methods are wrong and mass production is the the world says, organic farming is the way forward. The genius of ancient Bharat has to be rediscovered.

Thanks for Indian Express for posting this case’ Time not ripe for BT Brinjal”.

Bt brinjal contains a gene (fragment of the genetic material, DNA) obtained from a soil bacterium Bacillus thuringenesis. This gene codes for a protein, the Bt toxin, which can kill certain insects if it is ingested by the insect.The indefinite moratorium put on the open release of Bt brinjal by Jairam Ramesh, minister for environment and forests of the government of India, on February 9, 2010, was an unprecedented act of courage to do the right thing in the wake of strong opposition by many important cabinet ministers including, in the beginning, the prime minister. There is now an even stronger case to continue this moratorium till the foreseeable future. What, then, is the case?

First we must determine whether there is need for Bt brinjal in India. Is there a real serious problem with brinjal? Is it in short supply?Is the infestation by pests serious? These questions can only be answered by a proper socio-economic survey which has not been done. Prima facie, it appears that the pest infestation in brinjal in India is not serious and that there is no dearth of brinjal in the country.

It is, in fact, the cheapest vegetable available all round the year virtually everywhere in the country. Nevertheless, the scientific way to pursue the matter would be to actually carry out an appropriate socio-economic survey.

If it turns out that pest infestation needs to be controlled by some technique, we must ask, are there alternatives to putting in the Bt gene in Brinjal through genetic engineering? The answer is, yes. We have Integrated Pest Management and the use of bio-pesticides as well as protocols for growing brinjal organically, all of which have been shown to work very well for brinjal. They are cheaper, with virtually no risks, and far more convenient.

On the other hand, there are well established risks of growing and using Bt brinjal. Let us look at some of them.

(a) Medical and Health Risks. More than 60 possible health hazards of GM crops have been identified. Most of them are described, fully referenced, in the best-seller, “Genetic Roulette”, by Jeffrey Smith, published in 2007 by Yes Books in the U.S. Not only that, the number of scientific reports and research papers published in some of the world’s best-known journals by reputed scientists belonging to highly acclaimed research laboratories, that describe newer risks of GM crops or consolidate the existing ones, continue to appear at an ever increasing rate. These risks include production of an allergen, causation of cancer, and reproductive interference. None of these risks have been assessed adequately anywhere in the world for any GM crop – be it cotton in the US or India, or Bt-brinjal in India.

(b)Environmental Risks. These include transfer of Bt gene from Bt-brinjal to other varieties of normal brinjal grown, for example, organically in a field adjoining a field of Bt-brinjal. India has more than 2500 varieties of brinjal in use, and is considered to be one of the centres of origin of brinjal. Growing Bt-brinjal in the country is bound to contaminate other varieties and eventually make us lose these varieties and thus biodiversity.

(c)Agricultural Risks. As it has turned out with Bt cotton, Bt-brinjal may also require much higher inputs, for example of water and trace elements, than non-Bt- brinjal. It could also have adverse effects on soil microorganisms and ecology that play an important role in optimizing soil fertility. These hazards, again, have not been tested appropriately. Further, according to Monsanto-Mahyco’s own data, pollen of Bt brinjal can travel for 30 metres, though the chances are that this is a gross under-estimate. This means that a non-Bt brinjal grower, say a farmer growing brinjal organically in a farm adjacent to the farm of Bt brinjal, will have to leave 30 metres all around. In India, virtually all farmers that grow brinjal grow it in less than an acre. If in an acre you have to leave 30 metres all around unplanted, you are left with virtually no land to grow anything! As of today, no reliable risk assessment has been done for Bt brinjal.Out of some 30 tests that need to be done for a GM crop, much less than one-third have been attempted for Bt-brinjal.Even these tests are as good as these not having been done at all. They have been done either by Monsanto/Mahyco itself, or by accredited testing laboratories but on samples given by the company. Any tests done by Monsanto must be viewed with caution on account of the reputation of Monsanto to tell a lie, to suppress data and to falsify results.And where the tests had been done by accredited laboratories, how does one know that Monsanto supplied to them the samples that they were supposed to supply. Thus, if they want to test for toxicity of Bt brinjal, they could give to the accredited laboratory one sample labelled non-Bt brinjal which is actually non-Bt brinjal, and another sample labelled Bt brinjal which is also non-Bt brinjal. In such an event, even if Bt brinjal is highly toxic, the results of the testing laboratory will show that Bt brinjal given by Monsanto is as good as non-Bt-brinjal. No independent laboratory has verified the results of Monsanto-Mahyco with authentic samples. Every effort to set up such a lab has so far been thwarted, clearly on account of the fear that if the tests were done properly, a GM crop would be unlikely to pass all the tests.

As it turns out, the present Bt brinjal should be rejected on the basis of just one primary consideration: the gene-construct used to transform normal brinjal to Bt-brinjal, has a streptomycin-resistance gene. As streptomycin continues to be used by humans, this could be a serious problem as it may help evolution of pathogenic organisms that are resistant to streptomycin. The fact is that presence of this gene in the gene construct used to transform brinjal was totally unnecessary!

Then there is the issue of our right to know what we are eating. This right can be met only by passing a law requiring mandatory labelling of any GM product containing more than, say, 0.01 per cent of GM material which we can easily detect today. The question of release of any GM crop used as food for humans or animals cannot arise until such a law is passed. We must also not forget that nearly 15 states in India, representing nearly two-thirds of the population of the country have, formally or informally, prohibited the entry of Bt-brinjal. What is interesting is that these States represent virtually all the major political parties in the country. Can we ignore such rare unanimity?
About the author: P M Bhargava is the former vice chairman of the National Knowledge Commission

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