The New Year has begun and this year, 2010 is to be celebrated as the year of Biodiversity. I am enjoying the delicious irony of this situation, as one of the most hotly debated topics today in India is that of the first- ever genetically modified food to be approved for direct human consumption in the world, namely the Bt-Brinjal. Also known as Aubergine, this humble vegetable is consumed across the length and breadth of India; we are home to about 2500 varieties of this plant.  I can think of no better mascot for Biodiversity than the Brinjal. One of the key aspects that is worrying people in India is the probable loss of indigenously cultivated varieties of this plant because of its GM cousin. The debate over the approval of the Commercialization of Bt-Brinjal by the GEAC in India continues to rage in all circles. Like all great issues, this one has united people in India across all sections of Society.

In October 2009, the GEAC in India cleared the commercialization of the genetically modified Brinjal, the Bt-Brinjal. The vegetable has been modified to contain genes from the Soil Bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. These genes encode resistance to certain pests of the Lepidoptera family of pests. However, immediately after this decision, there was furious opposition to it by farmers groups, NGOs and Environmental activists such as Dr. Vandana Shiva. The reasons? Well there were many. The failure of a similar non-crop plant, Bt-Cotton to deliver on its promises of pest resistance, the criminal pricing policy of the company involved in the marketing of both the crops in question, namely, the international biotechnology giant Monsanto, the increase in the cases of suicides of small and Marginal farmers in areas where Bt-cotton was being cultivated, to name just a few.

In the wake of such unprecedented opposition to the technology, Indian Union Minister for Environment and Forestry, Mr. Jayaram Ramesh, has announced that a series of public consultations will be held before finalizing the decision on the release. Acknowledging the concerns of various citizens groups, he has made it clear that any technology will be introduced only after due consideration to all safety aspects and that the health and well-being of Citizens in India will not be compromised. The first of these Public consultations was held at Kolkatta on the 13th of January 2010. Other similar consultations are to be held as follows; Bhubaneshwar, Orissa state on Jan. 16, Ahmedabad, Gujarat on Jan. 19, Hyderabad on Jan. 22, Bangalore on Jan. 23, Nagpur on Jan. 27 and Chandigarh on Jan. 30. These meeting will be attended by stakeholders such as Farmers, Agriculture experts, Citizen’s groups, Scientists, and Activists.

While the first consultation in Kolkatta was a unanimous no for the technology, with farmers, Agriculturists and Scientists voting against the technology, Minister Jayaram Ramesh had to pacify protestors on the street by denying that he was an agent of Monsanto. The minister also said that he has written to all the chief ministers of the country seeking their views on the issue. Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa have rejected the proposal. Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in a letter to the Union minister had expressed his concerns over the issue in November 2008.

In Bangalore, a massive public campaign against the introduction of genetically modified Bt Brinjal is scheduled to take place at 10.30 am on Saturday 23 January 2010. Today, West Bengal and Bihar have refused to grow Bt-Brinjal. This is a serious blow to the Bt effort as these two states are responsible of around 41% of the total Production of Brinjal in India. Similarly there is a growing discontent against this technology in the Ministry as well as in Governments such as Kerala. Kerala has already refused to allow the cultivation of any Genetically Modified plant. I quote here from an article in the Guardian, “Cited in the Kerala ban are “irreversible and deleterious human health effects from GM crops/foods and adverse effects on other living organisms” and “the possibility of systematic monopolisation of seed and other resources by a handful of large corporate bodies, to the extent that even future public research is jeopardized and farmers’ a priori rights are completely violated.”

As the debate rages on and voices become shriller, some murky facts have emerged about the GEAC committee that approved the crop in the first place. I am quoting again from

  • The Chairperson, Prof Arjula Reddy, confesses to coming under pressure from “Agriculture Minister, GEAC and the industry” to approve Bt Brinjal.

(This was according to Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, the Supreme Court nominee to the GEAC, who had written to the environment minister on October 20, saying the expert panel was under pressure to clear Bt-brinjal. Bhargava wrote that Reddy had made a confidential call a couple of weeks before the October 14 meeting to tell him that he agreed with his recommendation for eight tests on Bt brinjal that were not done. Reddy is quoted as saying that even the tests that were done may not have been satisfactory and adequate. However, in an interview to the magazine Down to Earth, Reddy denied he was under the kind of pressure indicated by P M Bhargava.)

  • The Member-Secretary, Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM in the DBT), Dr K K Tripathi has a Central Vigilance Commission complaint pending against him for exercising undue discretionary powers to promote interests of companies of his choice (Mahyco, in this instance) and harm others. He sat in the Expert Committee which was considering Mahyco’s application, while the CVC complaint was still being examined!
  • At least two Bt Brinjal developers in the Expert Committee bring in conflicting interests. One of them is part of the Consortium project that is developing Bt Brinjal in India with American aid!
  • At least two members sat in the Expert Committee, reviewing their institutions’ own findings on Bt Brinjal biosafety!
  • At least two members who were expressly representing the Union Health Ministry (Dhir Singh and S B Dongre, who represented the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, were present only in the second meeting and did not take part in the deliberations. So no questions regarding health were asked on behalf of the public. The two were from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.) sat as observers in the Expert Committee without providing any inputs into the  process.

I wonder whether Minister Jayaram Ramesh is truly unaware of these pretty damning facts. When he loses his temper with scientists and environmental activists and feels that all debate should be carried out in the spirit of scientific enquiry, I wonder whether we should feel cheated or angry or both that people with vested interests and open conflict of interests should have been allowed to take such an important decision. Time and again in this debate I get the feeling that we are being made fools out of by clever politicians and powerful international biotechnology companies.

Meanwhile, I came across yet another organization that has openly opposed the introduction of Bt- Brinjal. These are a group of Doctors who call themselves the Doctors for Food and Biosafety. In a well-thought out letter to the Minister, they outline their reasons for opposing the use of the technology. It makes for truly interesting reading. Some of the points they touch upon have been central to this debate right from the beginning. They point out the use of obsolete technology in the insertion of the gene which uses Antibiotic resistance markers. If these markers end up spreading into local populations of bacteria, we will have drug resistant microbes on our hands. Similarly there is a lack of data on the possible alteration in the natural anti-oxidants present in the Brinjal. Further, animal studies showed that consumption of Bt-Brinjal led to diarrhea in rats. In a country such as ours, where only a few diarrhea cases are really treated and a vast majority of the populace succumbs to this disease, any introduction of an agent that is going to worsen this process is not welcome. Studies on Lactating cows have shown increased Milk Production after consumption of Bt-Brinjal and this brings into question possible effects on pregnant women and fetuses. The list is endless.

All of these facts, and the hurried manner in which approval for Commercialization was granted brings into focus the multifarious problems associated with introducing this technology in our country. Apart from the fact that a monopoly will be granted to the company Mahyco-Monsanto Biotechnology Ltd, and the seeds will come with the terminator technology (therefore farmers will have to buy seeds every year from the company adding to the cost)  there is a very real risk that this variety will contaminate the local varieties. This will lead to a loss of biodiversity. The international protocol on Biosafety and Biodiversity, the Cartagena Protocol, has made provisions for countries like India which can chose not to approve technologies that might hinder local varieties. Since the Brinjal is considered to have originated in India, we need to seriously consider this. Poor and Marginal farmers  who have traditionally saved seeds for replanting the following year, will not be able to do so, partially because the technology is patent protected and also because the terminator gene in the plant will not allow the seed to be viable beyond one generation. We have the bitter lesson of Bt-Cotton linked Farmer suicides in Widharbha (Maharashtra) still fresh in our memory.

As far as the claims of the Bt-varieties are concerned, Bt technology is not going to solve problems of yields. Further, research has shown that over a period of time, the target pest species become resistant to the gene, leaving us with super resistant pests. Due to this the usage of chemical pesticides to supplement the Bt varieties has gone up by 13 times. Further, other related and unrelated pests acquire the gene and become resistant as well. Transfer of the pest resistant gene to the weeds in the fields has resulted in the weed species becoming super-resistant as well. What the technology has achieved in essence is to create ever-expanding populations of resistant organisms and this is going to increase our dependence on Chemical Pesticides once again.

I would like to quote the guardian again, “An independent analysis of the Indian situation by Dr Judy Carman, director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research in Australia, which will be submitted to the Indian Supreme Court, shows that “if GM brinjal comes into the Indian food supply, then every Indian will be eating it, resulting in 1.15 billion being Indians exposed to the GM brinjal. Because of the number of people exposed, if GM brinjal is later found to cause illness, it could cause significant economic and social problems for India.”

I would like to very humbly submit to our honourable minister Jayaram Ramesh, that a purely scientific debate cannot be held in an atmosphere of deception and arm-twisting. When the concerns are so immediate and when so many renowned scientists are concerned I think the Government must issue an enquiry into how and why the technology was approved in the first place. We are a country with tremendous biodiversity and are struggling with unique problems of poverty and Inequity. If at such a time, our leaders are going to allow multinationals to take such heartless advantage of us then it is indeed unfortunate.

Lastly I will quote Dr. Vandana Shiva, the Face of this entire debate since the very Beginning, “2010 is the year of biodiversity and we are celebrating it by protecting our indigenous vegetable biodiversity and protecting our organic vegetable growers.”

I think most of you would agree with her there. Please let us save our beloved brinjal, the king of Foods from being high jacked by a faceless organization. So the next time you want to cook up a delicious fried brinjal you will not have to worry about it being dangerous only about your cooking skills !!