In what is turning into the most awaited event of the year, the countdown to the decision on the fate of our beloved Brinjal has begun. I am sure there are millions like me waiting with bated breath for Union Minister for Environment of the Government of India to pronounce judgment on the commercialization of the controversial Bt-Brinjal crop, the very first food crop to be approved for direct human consumption in the world. The decision is to be made tomorrow, after tumultuous public debates organized by the minister across India with the major stake-holders in the current situation, namely, Farmers, Social activists, Consumers and Scientists. Seldom has any debate been so heated or has any Minister lost his head so many times even going so far as to tell opposing activists “to get your heads examined”. He further went on record last night on national television saying that he did not want to make anyone happy. But, I humbly submit Mr. Ramesh that you seem to be missing the point by a long shot. You are not voted to power to make people happy but to see to it that the constitution of the country is safeguarded and that justice is done to all sections of society in any matter that comes before you.

As we wait for the announcement to be made, the debate has far from ended. Hot discussions in scientific and social circles still abound and opinion is sharply divided. In this situation, I thought I must make an effort to summarize the implications of the impending decision one way or the other. This is by no means a complete argument or statement of facts however, as the sheer volume of data and papers available on the matter of GM available nationally and internationally is overwhelming. I have just tried to pin down some of the aspects that have repeatedly come up during this fantastic debate.

Brinjal-In the Eye of the Storm

Brinjal-In the Eye of the Storm

If We Say Yes To The Commercialization Of Bt-Brinjal

Some of the Implications that I can think of:

  • The approval will have been carried out by a 30-member ad-hoc committee consisting mainly of bureaucrats and scientists, the GEAC. Some of the members of this committee did not even bother to attend the meetings and the two government representatives were merely observers and did not raise any questions throughout the deliberations. Thus, the voice of the people really had no say in the matter that was to affect them eventually. Effectively, we are sending out a strange signal to commercial enterprises, that we don’t really care about the concerns of the people and so we can simply entrust important decisions to lackluster committees.  
  • The Independent Supreme Court appointed advisor Dr. P.M. Bhargava, says many important tests were skipped by the company and the GEAC chose to give clearance inspite of this. He has earlier also alleged that the committee has been working under pressure from Monsanto and the Government. Leading expert on GMOs, has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme court of India questioning the GEAC and its hasty approval. Similar statements have been made by Dr. Seriliani. By still allowing the committee’s decision to stand, we will be paving the way for non-stringent approval of an entire range of GM crops waiting in the pipeline.  
  • The GEAC has already committed a faux pas before this in the case of Bt-Cotton. On March 26, 2002, Bt-Cotton was approved with insufficient and inadequate tests on Biosafety and efficacy. Approval was of course granted by the GEAC under the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Ironically, this permission was granted in spite of an ongoing Supreme Court case, filed by Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), challenging the 1998 field trials and stating that there were numerous irregularities and violations of biosafety laws and guidelines in previous year field trials. Today we know that the Bt-Cotton claims have almost all been rubbished. Apart from very serious health concerns that have emerged with this crop in India and abroad, which I will deal with later, states like Madhya Pradesh have seen an almost total failure of Bt-Cotton. Farms in Khargaon district are now up-in-arms against the company and are demanding to be compensated for a total failure of the Bt-Cotton crop. This has led to huge financial losses to these farmers as the cost of this crop is any way about 6 times higher than its native counter-part. According to social and environmental activist Dr Vandana Shiva, the same situation prevails in Maharashtra, Vidharbha were such failures are leading to suicides by the farmers. In the face of such precedent, the motives of the GEAC and of the Ministry (if it approves) are suspect.  
  • The Bt-technology has generally not worked very well for more than 7 years in almost all countries where it has been tested. The initial decreased spending on pesticides will slowly begin to increase as the native pest populations begin to get resistant to the technology. There are sufficient data to prove this. To quote the very Eloquent Gilles-Eric Seraliani in an interview to the Business Standard,   “You may not be aware that 99.9 per cent of edible genetically modified organisms are designed to contain toxic pesticides whose effect on the human body and the environment are not known. Everything is kept confidential by the biotech companies whose data governments accept without validation. We need many more tests on the environmental and health-safety aspects of GMOs and it should be assessed independently. We want science to be used for the benefit of people, not companies. Bt-brinjal has been modified to produce an unknown chimeric insecticide toxin. In the toxicity tests on target and non-target insects, this chimeric toxin was not used. Instead, an improper Cry1Ac toxin was used because this control was easier. Also, Bt brinjal is resistant to antibiotics, at least the well-known kanamycin.”
  • Thus, the first Genetically Engineered Food crop to be approved for Direct human consumption will be launched in India, by incompetent committees and vested interests, in the face of overwhelming evidence against this technology and bitter lessons from the Bt-Cotton episode forgotten or ignored. In doing so we would be doing gross injustice to our farmers many of whom are weak and marginalized and reliant upon the government to do justice.
  • Where scientists have warned that resistant genes used within the recombinant construct could spread to local bacterial populations, this will surely lead to an increase in the kinds and numbers of Antibiotic resistant organisms and we will bear the brunt of this in terms of increased incidents of Hospital-acquired illnesses (Nosocomial). Again we are exposing vulnerable sections of our population to a risk inspite of having known about the probability of such an event.
  • Monopolistic trade practices are being followed currently by companies like Monsanto. Apart from the fact that the Bt technology has been introduced with the so-called terminator gene technology that will make our farmers dependent on seeds year after year on the company, there is the issue of the exorbitant trait fees charged by the company for this technology. The trait fee is like a kind of royalty that we have to pay to the company as India does not recognize patents on life-forms. Now, while this seems to be quite a fair thing to do, the problem is that the monopoly of the company was used to charge a trait fee of around 1200 Indian rupees on every 450 gm packet of the Bt-Cotton seeds. Thus, the farmers ended up paying Rs.1800 to Rs. 2000 per packet of seeds. A farmers union in Andhra Pradesh succeeded in drawing the attention of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission which indicted Monsanto and gave relief to the farmers. However, this relief can only be marginal as in the future the farmers will have to pay high for the seeds and suffer crop failure or increased pesticide usage (it has been proved that Bt-Cotton is more susceptible to sucking insects and environmental stress factors than the native counter-parts). In the ruling by the commission in 2006, the following observation was made, “The trait fee being charged by the respondent not only imposes unjustified costs on the farmers by way of manipulation of prices but is also unreasonable in view of lack of competition.” It would seem that by agreeing to such restrictive policies and allowing for further scope to carry out similar practices again with Bt-Brinjal, we are submitting to a different kind of Economic Imperialism.
  • The approval will come as a result of the GEAC’s reliance on safety data and evaluation tests provided by the very companies who stand to gain financially in the current situation, Monsanto and the Indian Counter-part Mahyco. This presents a serious conflict of interest. Also, it is very clear that the company has fudged data and has not performed several important tests related to safety and efficacy. Further, the toxin used to carry out the tests was not the Chimeric toxin extracted from the GM crop as should have been done but the safer and known bacterial toxin that has been used for many years and whose safety has been proved. Chimeric molecules are different from native ones and merely assuming them to be identical is dangerous. Any approval granted on the basis of such unscientific tests will set a precedent in India and other developing countries opening the flood-gates for the introduction of such crops in an uncontrolled manner.
  • In an unorganised market such as India, merely introducing labelling of GM vs non-GM foods will be a cosmetic measure and will offer no real choice to the consumer.
  • Then there are biodiversity issues to be considered. India is home to the Brinjal or the Aubergine or the Egg-plant as it is variously known. We grow around 2500 varieties of this plant across different states and it is the most consumed plant throughout the year. Introduction of the Bt-Brinjal crop will result in important implications for biodiversity of this plant. For example, brinjal is a cross-pollinated plant. The introduction of Bt-Brinjal will result in genetic contamination of these indigenous varieties and we may lose out on many such species. Further, since initially, the Bt-Brinjal will carry resistance to the pest which currently affects the brinjal crop.
  • As far as health hazards are concerned, increasing numbers of reports from various countries on Bt-cotton related allergenic reactions are surfacing. These reactions in workers include immunological hyper-reactivity, skin and upper respiratory tract disorders and general fatigues. In certain countries long-term association with the allergens have resulted in deaths as well. Of course there have been deaths reported in cattle as well.

Given all of these aspects and many more soon to emerge I am sure, it would be wise on the part of the government of India to not allow commercialization at this point in time. Though they may have to face international pressure on this issue (read US), I think in the long run it will be a service to India and to the world at large. We will have set a strong precedent and given a signal to MNCs like Monsanto not to take public health in a light vein. I will end this analysis by quoting the one person who has been campaigning relentlessly against the introduction of Bt technologies, Dr. Vandana Shiva.Shiva has called for a moratorium on commercial GM approvals. She very neatly summarizes the scenario as, “Bt brinjal is a test case for the future of our food, our democracy, our science. That is why it should not be introduced in our farms and our kitchens without a proper reassessment, especially in the context of false assumptions made to present Bt. Brinjal as the only alternative available ignoring the proven agro ecological approach to pest control.”

References:

1. http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/bline/2006/04/15/stories/2006041502261000.htm

2. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/news-by-industry/cons-products/food/Bt-Brinjal-should-not-be-allowed-Scientists-to-India/articleshow/5525271.cms

3. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/MILTBT.php

4. Genengnews.com (Genetically Modified Foods Unsafe? Evidence that Links GM Foods to Allergic Responses Mounts; Jeffery M. Smith)

5. Image Credit: ifood.com