Some interesting facts: 3

GM tomatoes: The first and only safety evaluation of a GM crop, the FLAVR SAVRTM tomato, was commissioned by Calgene, as required by the FDA. This GM tomato was produced by inserting kanr genes into a tomato by an ‘antisense’ GM method. The test has not been peer-reviewed or published but is on the internet. The results claim there were no significant alterations in total protein, vitamins and mineral contents and in toxic glycoalkaloids. Therefore, the GM and parent tomatoes were deemed to be “substantially equivalent.”

In acute toxicity studies with male/female rats, which were tube-fed homogenized GM tomatoes, toxic effects were claimed to be absent. However: Some rats died within a few weeks after eating GM tomatoes.

  • The unacceptably wide range of rat starting weights (±18% to ±23%) invalidated these findings.
  • No histology on the intestines was done even though stomach sections showed mild/moderate erosive/necrotic lesions in up to seven out of twenty female rats but none in the controls. However, these were considered to be of no importance, although in humans they could lead to life-endangering hemorrhage, particularly in the elderly who use aspirin to prevent thrombosis.
  • Seven out of forty rats on GM tomatoes died within two weeks for unstated reasons.
  • These studies were poorly designed and therefore the conclusion that FLAVR SAVRTM tomatoes were safe does not rest on good science, questioning the validity of the FDA’s decision that no toxicological testing of other GM foods will in future be required.

GM maize: Two lines of Chardon LL herbicide-resistant GM maize expressing the gene of Phosphinothricin Acetyltransferase Enzyme (PAT-PROTEIN) before and after ensiling showed significant differences in fat and carbohydrate contents compared with non-GM maize and were therefore substantially different. Toxicity tests were only performed with the PAT-PROTEIN even though with this the unpredictable effects of the gene transfer or the vector or gene insertion could not be demonstrated or excluded. The design of these experiments was also flawed because:

Rats’ ability to digest was decreased after eating GM corn.

  • The starting weight of the rats varied by more than ±20% and individual feed intakes were not monitored.
  • Feed conversion efficiency on PAT-PROTEIN was significantly reduced.
  • Urine output increased and several clinical parameters were also different.
  • The weight and histology of the digestive tract (and pancreas) was not measured.

Thus, GM maize expressing PAT-PROTEIN may present unacceptable health risks.

GM soybeans: To make soybeans herbicide resistant, the gene of 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase from Agrobacterium was used. Safety tests claim the GM variety to be “substantially equivalent” to conventional soybeans. The same was claimed for GTS (glyphosate-resistant soybeans) sprayed with this herbicide.11 However, several significant differences between the GM and control lines were recorded10 and the statistical method used was flawed because:

  • Instead of comparing the amounts of components in a large number of samples of each individual GTS with its appropriate parent line grown side-by-side and harvested at the same time, the authors compared samples from different locations and harvest times.
  • There were also differences in the contents of natural isoflavones (genistein, etc.) with potential importance for health.
  • Additionally, the trypsin inhibitor (a major allergen) content was significantly increased in GTS.

Because of this, and the large variability (± 10% or more), the lines could not be regarded as “substantially equivalent.”

GM potatoes: There is only one peer-reviewed publication on GM potatoes that express the soybean glycinin gene. However, the expression level was very low and no improvements in the protein content or amino acid profile were obtained.

The Bt- Brinjal debate continues to occupy center-stage in India as the series of common- platform debates on the safety of the crop reached Bangalore. Minister Jayaram Ramesh was once again ‘gheraoed’ (surrounded) by angry and agitated farmers, social and environmental activists in the garden city. The activists more or less forced the minister to take a decision on the matter by February 10, which is just 3 days away. While the minister sticks to his assurances that his decision will be guided by sound science and public good, it seems a Herculean task to be undertaken given the sharp divide over this issue both in political and agricultural circles. In any case, this will be a decision worth watching out for. As the minister himself says, ‘the decision will disappoint half of India while the rest will be happy’.

Meanwhile, Andhra Pradesh joined the long list of States opposing the cultivation of this controversial crop. The southern state in India from which minister J. Ramesh is himself an MP joined West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Kerala, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in their veto of Bt-Brinjal cultivation.

Another development is the statement issued by AP agriculture minister N Raghuveera Reddy at a press conference in Hyderabad on Saturday evening saying that a committee appointed by it had concluded that further trials and a deeper study is needed before going for the commercialization of Bt-Brinjal “There is a need for scientific approval before the crop is commercially produced. We are not against technology improvements in the agriculture field, but we want to ensure that the technology benefits the farmer and increases the yield. We had supported Bt cotton earlier but we are convinced that Bt Brinjal is not yet ready for commercial cultivation. The decision was taken after close consultations with scientists,” he said 1 .

What still troubles me in all this hullabaloo, is the overwhelming (as I see it !!) data and opinions expressed by eminent experts and scientists in the field of Agriculture, that has been brought in public domain and has been equally scrupulously ignored by the regulatory agencies of this country. The fact that science and scientists in India work under political pressure is a known fact and this was further underlined by experts at a panel meeting organized by the People’s Science Forum to in the backdrop of the Bt-Brinjal issue. The meet was held in Chandigarh last week and had speakers such as Dr V C Nanda, former head, Department of Advanced Mathematics. In context of the Bt problem he said, The American Academy of Environment Medicine has said that there should be a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) food. Doctors are also not prepared to treat patients with GM-induced symptoms. Two Texan scientists have found that GM crop seeds are poisonous and should not be included in fodder, but in India there is no check.”2 The panelists further alleged that frauds were being committed by companies such as Mahyco- Monsanto in an attempt to pass off the new technology.

When I trawled the net for reports on toxicity of Bt-foods, I was surprised that a large number of studies have been carried out internationally to try and evaluate the possible toxigenic effects of the protein. While respected experts in the fields of agriculture and genetics agree that it is virtually impossible to be able to predict accurately the long-term effects of consuming Genetically modified food-crops, they stress the need for detailed evaluations of toxicity and protein analysis in such plants. An article by Prof. Joe Cummins outlines some important studies on the Bt- Cry Toxin in several animal models and the startling findings reported therein. However, he very pertinently notes that these adverse effects are seldom reported in documents released by Regulatory Authorities in general. He further makes the point that each and every new toxin produced in GM crop needs to be evaluated independently for toxicity in mammals and to the environment. This makes the process long and costly. Citing the case of North America, he says that all the Bt crops approved there were done so simply on the basis of the knowledge on toxicity of the Natural Bt-Toxin and not the synthetically produced toxins. Regulatory authorities simply assumed that if the modified protein bore similar domains and an immunological relationship with the natural toxin, then it was safe. Thus, the actual toxins from any of the modified plants have not been extracted and tested per se.

This is interesting as it seems to underline the general reticence of regulatory authorities to take a strong stand against the hasty introduction of technology being pushed by MNCs for their own vested interests. In the Indian context it is important for authorities to take note of these expert observations.

Dr. Arpad Pusztai

Dr. Arpad Pusztai

World-renowned expert in the field of lectin study and animal testing of GM foods, Dr. Arpad Pusztai has written a comprehensive article on the subject. He writes that there are no peer-reviewed articles on Human Clinical Trials of Bt or any other modified toxin. Animal study data is equally scarce. The theory of ‘Substantial equivalence’ allows genetically modified crop plants to be patented without any animal trials. This allows for comparison to be drawn between the modified plant and the natural one. If there is found to be no substantial difference between them, then the modified crop is presumed safe and allowed to be commercialized. This is a fundamentally unsound presumption as the modified crop may contain modified proteins that may be allergenic or may cause other problems to humans. The genetic elements used in the modification process may not be completely degraded in the digestive tracts and these reticent genes may be taken up by gut bacteria and result into highly resistant species. Further, inserted genes may express themselves in new and unpredicted ways and may create unknown toxins and allergens which might be difficult to test for, given the absence of anti-sera to these putative toxins/proteins. It is also wrong to assume he says that proteins are allergic only if present in large quantities. Current toxicity testing revolves around testing of micro/macro nutrients in food and evaluation of known toxins only. This system is outdated and newer methods and test need to be devised urgently before allowing these modified crops to enter the food chain. He outlines several of the “studies on GM foods” carried out in the US and points out meticulously the flaws in each of these.3 Some of these I have outlined at the start of the article. All of this data suggests again an almost universal apathy to the possible side-effects of this technology.

In the Indian context again, it interested me to note that Dr. Puzstai, had submitted to the Supreme Court of India an affidavit regarding the GEAC and its haste in allowing Bt-Brinjal commercial trials. In his opening statement without mincing his words he writes, I am afraid, we are still back to the same old problem: the absence of data in the submission for allowing the large scale field trial of Bt brinjal it is impossible to formulate a critical evaluation of the proposal. Unless if now there is access to the GEAC arguments in favour of Bt brinjal large-scale field trials that are based on actual results, hard data and SCIENCE and not PR one can only exchange opinions and insults with the GEAC. Their assurances that they have these results but will not disclose them to us for evaluation are worthless.” In a detailed document he outlines several studies quoting references and papers. I would urge the readers to go through some of these research articles which have not yet received the attention they deserve. 4 Among the issues covered by these papers are the fact that the Bt- toxin has now been proved to bind to the gut of mammals leading to a range of problems; The capacity of various A-B toxin-lectins, including Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Cry1Ac protoxin to stimulate and modulate both the systemic and mucosal immune systems ; the effects of toxins on the gut linig and liver of various animal models used. Ending this rather shocking affidavit he says and I quote again, “The evidence for the survival of the Bt toxins in the digestive tract and internal organs is clear-cut. Thus, it is expected that the situation with Bt brinjal will not be different. Accordingly, all the already described potentially harmful effects on consumers of the Bt toxins can also be expected to occur with Bt brinjal. As their release into the environment is an irreversible act, sanctioning such large scale field trials would be highly irresponsible.” 4

Dr Krishna.R.Dronamraju

Dr Krishna.R.Dronamraju

Another extremely important opinion has been expressed by the eminent and highly respected Indian scientist Dr Krishna Rao Dronamraju, professor of Genetics in Johns Hopkins and the University of Texas. In an article titled “Bt Brinjal — Why are we rushing into this so fast?”, he calls for a 2 year moratorium on Bt- Brinjal before further consideration. He has clearly stated that India lacks the necessary testing facilities for genetically modified food-crops. He also hints at the possible politicization of the issue pointing out the haste with which the decision to commercialize was taken. But of course what I felt was the difference in his statement was the fact that he questions the premise that this technology will help the farmers in any way. He say and I quote “Even if it were viable, Bt Brinjal is a poor idea,’’ said he. “It is not a staple — why not focus on some crop central to survival, like wheat or rice? We must ask ourselves if it is even necessary.’’ Further, he goes on to say, “And the motives of Monsanto, Bt Brinjal’s producer, were suspect as well. Large corporations are not interested in the public good,’’ he said, adding: “In the case of Monsanto, they knew for years Bt Corn was toxic but tried to cover it up. They released their data only when forced to.’’

I would like to emphasis here one theme that constantly struck me. We are talking about having a scientific debate on an issue that has crucial health and socio-economic implications. Yet, we chose to ignore the very scientific data that should have had centre-stage. The minister claims that all decision will be taken in the light of scientific knowledge and public good. What I have outlined above are just few of the eminent voices talking about the very real dangers of this technology being introduced without extensive and meticulous testing. New technology cannot be evaluated using old standards. And if the evaluation needs to be stalled while these techniques are being developed, then I think it will be worth our while. Also, world-over we need to be able to develop scientific systems that are independent and unafraid of political regimes. All of the scientists I have quoted in this article are people who have dedicated their lives to development of new technologies. However, they are conscientious enough to want to put their research through the acid-test before they can gain any benefits commercial of otherwise though it. I think that is what good science is all about. I think I would not be wrong in saying that the Bt-Brinjal debate has now united the world and I think that is a positive aspect. We have a number of respected individuals in the fields of Science and Environment who have expressed objectively their concerns. While people like me wait with bated breath the decision of the minister on the 10th of this month, there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from this episode. The most important I think is this; technological advances are necessary and are the only way out of the crisis that looms ahead. But these advances should be sustainable, socially friendly and environmentally sound. Dr. Vandana Shiva has demanded that scientific studies be undertaken to evaluate the real differences between organic farming and Technology driven (GM oriented) farming. I think such studies, if systematically carried out will provide the answers to many nagging problems and will enable farmers and Governments to make really informed decisions.

So, dear readers, ponder over this as we await the decision on the fate of our beloved Brinjal!!!


1.The Times of India