Sunday, March 07, 2010

Survival of the Humble Brinjal

When the Union Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh announced an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal last month, the decision created a small window for many in India to sit and understand what the fuss is all about, without being swept away in the tides of another flawed Green Revolution, fuelled by the usage of Genetic Modified Crops. It is important that we understand that the Bt Brinjal issue is not a simple Traditional Vs Modernity fight or a rural farmer issue but a complex issue concerning National Security – there are 40+ GM food crops which are in the pipeline and covers every aspect of food security in India.

Bt Brinjal is a transgenic brinjal created by inserting a gene (Cry 1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bt into brinjal. The insertion of the gene into the vegetable is said to give the brinjal plant resistance against insects like the brinjal fruit and shoot borer and fruit borer. In India, Bt Brinjal is being promoted by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company). If cleared for human consumption, Bt-brinjal will be the first GM vegetable crop approved for cultivation anywhere in the world. GM corn and GM soya are mainly used to feed cattle in North America or go into processed foods.

US multinational bio-technology firm Monsanto (which sells 90 per cent of the world's genetically engineered seeds), promotes GM crops in India through Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech, a 50:50 joint venture between Monsanto and Mahyco. In the 80s, Monsanto developed and patented a technology that enabled inject the Bt gene into seeds, as a result of which whenever a pest attacks the plant it dies. No one knows for sure what happens to the human beings who actually consume it. The scientific community is divided over the effects of this gene on us and opponents of GM (Genetically Modified) Food have raised issues on the health, environmental, economic and ethical aspects of moving over to GM food.

If you were to ask if eating Bt brinjal is dangerous or would cause cancer or any life threatening disease, the upfront answer to that would be an emphatic DON’T KNOW. Bt brinjal has not been properly tested for health or environmental safety though the advocates of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) say that they are safe and are the same as the naturally occurring organisms used to create the transgenic crop.

In October 2009, the Indian biotechnology regulator, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the statutory body responsible for approving its cultivation in India which is an ad hoc 30-member committee comprising mainly bureaucrats and scientists, gave its approval for introduction of Bt brinjal. The clearance was provided by the GEAC based purely on the data provided by Mahyco and the institutions it used for testing without doing any independent testing!!!

Isn’t this a clear case of conflict of interest- you create a product, do the testing yourself or sanction it and provide data to a regulator and the dumb regulator accepts it, without any form of independent evaluation. The French geneticist, Gilles-Eric Seralini, who was commissioned by the environmental group Greenpeace to check the claims made by Mahyco at the GEAC pronounced the data submitted by Monsanto-Mahyco as insufficient and misleading on several counts and the GEAC wanting in diligence. There are no proper bio-safety regulations for the environmental release of transgenic crops in India, with the GEAC, essentially adopting U.S.-style lack of regulation for GMOs.

The GEAC also says that they were not sure about the long-term health effects of genetically modified food on humans and stipulate that surveillance and long-term follow up should be conducted — essentially saying that you can eat Bt brinjal and it’s fine now but in the long term, it may or may not cause problems. How can the Government give clearance for something as radical as GM food without sufficient clinical trials? Apart from the fact that there were no long-term tests conducted for human safety, the adverse results of the short-term tests on lab rats were actually suppressed.

One of the more touted benefits of GMOs is that they reduce the use of pesticides, making it a more eco-friendly alternative. But there is always a danger of the pests developing resistance to the gene just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to DDT. A Government conducted survey in 2002-03 on Bt Cotton (the first transgenic crop to be released in India) revealed an almost 99% incidence of the pink bollworm, a major pest that attacks the cotton crop.

Monsanto admitted this week that during field monitoring in 2009, the Bt cotton variety used in four Gujarat districts — Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot — failed to control pests. Similar cases have been reported on the American bollworm, increasingly indicating that the pest is growing immune to the Bt gene. Some studies have shown that GM crops have destroyed useful insects as well as changed the nature of the soil (Monsanto had developed a herbicide called Round Up which when sprayed killed not only weeds but also soya. So it developed a GM soya bean which was resistant to Round Up and sold both the herbicide and the seed – a perfect double whammy!!!).

Conventionally in India, farmers buy seeds from the Government (centres like Krishi Bhavan) and then save their seeds from year to year obtained after the initial produce, for further usage. These seeds are diverse and replicable and over the years given the climatic conditions, these native seeds develop resistance to pests and disease attacks. The cost of a packet of Bt Cotton is Rs. 1600 as compared to the non-Bt hybrid that costs between Rs. 380 to Rs 460 because seed costs are higher.

Also since the Bt Cotton plant is not effective in controlling secondary pests like the white mosquito, aphids and other sucking pests, more pesticides have to be used, escalating total input costs. Monsanto patents its seeds and insists on contractual agreements with farmers that they will not save and replant seeds the next season, increasing the price of the seeds when compared to the inexpensive seeds available in the market (To enforce this, it had developed a terminator gene which produce sterile seeds that do not germinate, ensuring that farmers buy the seeds every year).

Another strong argument in favour of the Bt seeds is their claim to increasing crop yields by ushering a second Green Revolution. This is a false promise; Bt cotton destroys bollworm while Bt brinjal prevents the fruit and shoot borer but beyond this, they remain the same in their susceptibility towards other issues. Every year we have bumper harvests but the final produces lie rotting in government godowns and are burnt later on while millions suffer due to starvation and hunger. The problem we face is more related to distribution and less with production, so is increasing the yield through such suspect methods the only way out?

Access to food of our choice is a basic human right; we all can exercise this human right by refusing or agreeing to purchase engineered and manufactured food. But how can we differentiate between a normal brinjal and a Bt brinjal? Monsanto has consistently refused to label its GM foods, leading to most European countries banning GM foods. Moreover, India does not have a proper labeling system to distinguish and inform us of the GM content in our food.

In the words of Jeffrey Smith, author of Genetic Roulette on Bt Brinjal - If Bt brinjal produces allergic or toxic symptoms in the population, it could be years or decades before authorities are able to track the cause. The brinjal is not labelled, so some may get reactions to some meals with brinjal, and not to others isolating the cause is difficult. By the time it is discovered, the brinjal will have contaminated so many varieties; abandoning brinjal altogether may be the only recourse.

There are more than 2400 varieties of brinjal available in India due to local flavours and conditions. Fostering these bacterial genes into the brinjal could rapidly contaminate the thousands of brinjal varieties because the structure of its flower is conducive to a high rate of cross-pollination, leading to destruction of many of the home grown varieties. With an annual yield of 8 million tones, we do not face any crisis in brinjal production. If food security was an issue behind introduction of GM food crops, then why was brinjal chosen though it is not a staple diet? Maybe the answer lies when you are told that Monsanto spends 2 million dollars a day on research – it’s Payback Time!!!

The First Green Revolution in India in the 1970s regarded chemicals as the magic wands to transform Indian agriculture but these same chemicals are now being looked at as monsters that have adulterated many of our crops. The rest of the world may have banned DDT and Endosulfan but we continue to patronise them and kill our people. Now, there is a demand to bring GMOs to counter these same insecticides. We do not know whether the risk that was taken 30 years back is worth it but now do we want to tempt history again?

There is a risk that bio-technology may be branded as a villain and halted totally but surely, there is a middle ground. Maybe many of us are wrong, maybe GMOs will actually help make a difference but then should we not wait till a proper Cost-Benefit and Risk Analysis is done and we have concrete evidence to actually prove this rather than jumping the gun?

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  1. 2400!!!??? Humble Brinjal indeed. Thanks for the write-up. Very informative. Is all your research done online?

  2. Thanks Pradeep. It has been months since I read a newspaper. This article is very informative.

    Based on the data you have provided, I agree that the Indian government can wait until detailed tests are performed and concrete results are available.

  3. Mostly yes..But for this article, the main reference was the latest Tehelka magazine…