Some Facts :
- Bt-Brinjals approved for Cultivation in India by GEAC.
- This is the only GM (Genetically Modified) Crop for direct Human Consumption in the World
- No GM food for direct consumption Is available in any supermarket in the EU
- GM soya and GM corn are used as animal feed or in processed form only
- The Cartagena Protocol has provisions that prevent Modification of Indigenous varieties of Crops
- There is really no data available on the effects of the Bt-Toxin on Human beings
- Eminent scientist and Chairperson of Moleular Biology at University of Caen in France, Gilles-Eric Seralini, pronounced the data submitted by Monsanto-MAHYCO as insufficient and misleading on several counts and the GEAC wanting in diligence.
- He further hoped we would not turn our people into “lab Rats”
When I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I was in school. I was fascinated by the world of genetics and genetic engineering and the prospect of solving major problems related to health and food security with a switch of a gene. Well yeah that was my concept of genetic engineering as a clear-eyed 13-year old. Brave New World hooked me because of what I deemed the author’s fertile imagination. Of course we would be manipulating genes, but that would be for curing cancer or Alzheimer’s, not for creating Alpha or beta babies, carefully selected by an authoritarian government in a high tech avatar of caste or race discrimination. What really hit home was this; in the real world, one may belong to a “lower” caste, or an “inferior” race, but what Nature gave you in a universal draw of lots was still yours, nothing or no one could take that away from you. But in the Brave New World, a nameless group of people with ulterior motives, picked and chose genetic traits and created a whole class of people who could or could not do certain levels of work. So, we had the Intellectuals and the Menials with a seemingly irreversible set of traits “given” not by nature but by man. This was what I believed would never really happen. What the hell are laws for? And are people of Democratic States not aware that “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Democracy”? Then how would such people allow the creation of A Brave New World? I guess I could be forgiven for such Utopian fantasies, I was just a kid.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I have to say; sometimes I wonder whether it was foolish of me and so many other millions of people around the world to place such trust in our elected representatives? What has prompted me to finally take a very strong stand on the issue of genetic modification is the recent controversy over the GEAC’s (Genetic engineering Approval committee, set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Government of India) approval of Genetically modified Brinjal, also known as Aubergine. Now, as a researcher and a teacher of Biotechnology, I am intricately aware of the tremendous potential of the field of genetic engineering to solve some of our most pressing problems. One such global concern is providing nutritious food to the burgeoning populations across countries given the fact that there is only so much cultivable land, and many crop plants are under siege by pests that destroy millions of dollars worth of food and cash crops annually. Genetic engineering was thought of as one of the available options to deal with these concerns. One could modify plants to increase yields by selecting high- yielding mutants or those with increased nutritional levels and cultivate them in the field thus solving the problem of quality and quantity. Pest control was a different issue. So we thought of genetically modified crops. What exactly is genetic modification? Well to explain it most simply scientists take a gene from some organism that is responsible for certain traits for example, resistance to a certain insect pest. This gene is then inserted into a crop plant so that the very same trait gets transferred to the plant. When the plant is then cultivated on the field and it encounters the pest, the gene that is now within the plant will enable it to fight the pest off on its own. End result, a crop plant that can fight off its own enemies without the need to use harmful chemical pesticides. Fantastic. The most famous example of such a crop is the Bt- Cotton crop. Cotton, known for its extreme susceptibility to the Cotton Bollworm pest, and hence for the necessity of using a large amount of chemical pesticide for its cultivation, was successfully initiated into the open markets (marketed by Biotech giant, Monsanto). Or was it? I would like to quote verbatim from a very interesting paper based on a trial conducted in China on Cotton farmers, growing Bt-Cotton. “Using a 2004 survey conducted in China researchers from Cornell University studied the economics of Bt cotton adoption in China. They found that by year three, Bt cotton farmers in the survey had cut their pesticide use by 70% and had earnings 36% higher than farmers planting conventional cotton. However, by 2004 (year seven) Bt cotton farmers were spending almost an equivalent amount on pesticides (US$101 per ha) as conventional cotton farmers. And, with higher seed costs, by 2004 Bt cotton farmers were earning 8% less than conventional cotton farmers.” 1 Why did this happen? Very simple, there is saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” If one pest was gotten rid of, others moved in to take its place. Is the high cost of genetically engineered crops to the farmers, particularly in countries like India justified if we are back to square one in a matter of 7 years?
Coming to Bt-Brinjals. The same technology adapted to an important food crop in India. And now for the most distressing facts of all; it is the only GM food crop in the whole world to be approved for direct human consumption.2 Brinjal, again requires a large amount of Chemical pesticide to be used for cultivation. However, my question is this, why is it the only crop in the whole world that has been approved for direct consumption? That too, by an agency that has allowed the companies, namely Monsanto, of course, and MAHYCO to keep data pertaining to field trials a secret under the excuse of Intellectual Property protection. By all standards this is atrocious. On the one hand we have technologically advanced countries like the European Union that have imposed blanket ban on GM foods for direct consumption 3. Also, a large number of GM foods such as Corn and Soya even in the US are used as Cattle food and If intended for human it is used only in processed form! 4 I would have appreciated it if our so-called regulatory agency had shown some spine and refused to clear the crop unless all the data was revealed. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety clearly does not approve of genetic modification of a crop indigenous to a particular country. The reason? Lets consider the case of the Brinjal. A native of India, we cultivate 200 variteis of this humble plant and it is consumed in a variety of mouth-watering dishes across our country whether in Karnataka or in West Bengal. If we allow and encourage selective cultivation of one particular GM crop in favour of others because of real or imagined benefits, we are risking losing many or all of our indigenous varieties. This will result in an irretrievable loss of biodiversity. Further, if at some point in time, we ever decide to stop cultivation of the new crop, where will we find the seeds of our lost species. Also if the Bt-Cotton story repeats, we might use more pesticides, pay higher for the seeds and thus convert fertile land to barren ones. I very humbly ask does the GEAC, or the Government have any right to do this?
I came across an article that said that during trials, when Bt-Brinjal was fed to rats, they suffered from Diarhhoea. Further, they exhibited a decrease in liver weight, and liver to body weight. Also, Bt brinjal appears to have 15 per cent less calories than normal brinjal. 5 there is a severe paucity of literature with respect to the effects of the Bt- Toxin on Human beings. Which means that we really do ont knoe the long term effects of consuming this crop in terms of health risks either. The gene in the crop results into an expression of a protein that results into antibiotic resistance. The effect of this though not yet documented create yet another scenario of probable emergence of antibiotic resistant populations of Bacteria in our bodies and hence the environment. In a few dacades will we be grappling with Super-bugs even more deadly than MRSA?
I think I will not be wrong in saying that this wonton experimentation should be curtailed and in a most decisive manner. One man who had the guts to speak his mind was a expert brought in by Greenpeace to examine evidence produced by MAHYCO/Monsanto. French geneticist Gilles-Eric Seralin, after deeming the evidence produced by these two agencies misleading and lacking on several counts said to reporters in New Delhi that, “he hoped this country would not adopt commercial use of Bt brinjal and allow its people to be turned into “lab rats,” since tests have not yet been carried out on how its consumption would affect human health” 6. Activists and Scientists such as Dr. Vandana Shiva, Dr. Sunita Narain, and Devinder Sharma, an internationally known food security specialist, have all been up in arms against this kind of indiscriminate clearance. Our country has no laws in place with respect to mandatory labelling of GM foods, so the consumers will have no choice at all. Farmers, who will need to keep buying seeds every year from Monsanto as the seeds contain a suicide gene that prevents their use next year, will be caught in Debt traps if even a single crop should fail. As Dr Shiva Says if one maps the cultivation of Bt-Cotton in Maharashtra one can obtain a Suicide map of the farmers. One of the highest farmer suicide rates in Maharashtra is in Vidharba, were almost all cotton cultivated is Bt-Cotton.
Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh has promised “more debate” after the sudden reaction of a large number of Students groups, environmental activists and even farmers to the approval. But is this a case of too little too late? Have our leaders become so hard-hearted that they can approve untested and potentiall damaging technology on an nsuspecting mass of people, without even giving them a chance to retaliate. Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss in an open letter has asked for a moratorium on relaease of all GM foods in India till all questions are answered. And I agree. Let us all take a hard look at the technology we all are so desperate to use that we are happy to close our eyes to dangers. Let us step back and demand stricter regulations. Let the consumer have a real choice. Let the multinational companies with big money and no soul be given a clear message, we are not Guinea Pigs. Let our leaders be made accountable and punished for callousness. And let us all, researchers and Academicians and Students take a stand for ethical Technology.
Otherwise I am afraid, we will be in a Brave New World, and what is worse, WE WILL BE RESPONSIBLE FOR IT!!
1. www.myhero.com/myhero/hero.asp?hero=Shiva (Dr. Vandana Shiva)
2.http://www.mindfully.org/devindersharma/Sharma-The-Academy21nov03.htm (Devinder Sharma)
3. www.time.com (Dr.Sunita Narain)