The debate on the modified Brinjal seemed to have ended when Indian Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh abruptly calling off the battle and settling for a 2 year moratorium on the commercial release of the Bt-Brinjal in India. However, he made it clear that this decision was for Brinjal alone and as of now did not apply to all the other modified foods in the pipeline. So, we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable controversies that might arise once these other modified veggies are forced into the limelight. Of course the Government is now seriously looking at a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (not approval, mind you, but regulatory) for assessing the safety and putative efficacy of these crops. The idea, while supported in principle by most sections, nevertheless has incurred some negative comments. Many scientists and activists regard the move with suspicion as it has been mooted by the Department of Biotechnology, which has a vested interest in promoting transgenic Crops in India.

The war is not over even as far as the various Ministers and Departments of the Government of India (GOI) are concerned. Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar wants the moratorium reversed as he feels the current data provided by the Company (Monsanto –Mahyco) and the tests carried out by them are sufficient to warrant commercialization of the crop. Similarly, though not directly opposing the Moratorium, Minister Prithviraj Chauhan says that he is “satisfied with the tests carried out by the scientists but not opposed to further tests for evaluating safety.” With all this strong posturing and severely divided scientific opinion, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been forced to step in and prevent a full-blown face-off between his ministers. He will meet with the ministers today and try to sort out the differences in opinion that have arisen. He will also try and clear the scene as far as the approval authority is concerned. Considering that the GEAC has come under flack for its controversial decision, the big question is if not the GEAC, who will be the next body that will decide the fate of the crops.

While activists are opposing Mr. Pawar and his agenda to reverse the moratorium, the Government has larger questions on its mind. Like I said before, the debate will not stop here. We cannot indefinitely hope to resist all forms of Biotechnology Derived (BD) plants in this country. Many of these technologies have decided advantages, and in view of our endemic starvation and population growth, we need to answer the questions concerning BD crops carefully and responsibly. While senior scientist and founder of CCMB, and the Supreme court appointed independent observer to the GEAC, Dr. .Pushpa Bhargava has made it amply clear we do not need Bt-Brinjal at all, can we be so categorical about all other BD plants (not only Bt)? For example, we may want to develop plants resistant to saline conditions or harsh weathers and these might entail genetic modification and transgenic technologies. Will we then again be faced with the bigger question, should we outright Ban the technology, or should we weigh the pros and cons of it carefully before jumping to conclusions?

Well the answer is very obvious to anyone of an even and scientific temper. Of course we need to evaluate technology before implementing it and blindly refusing to use beneficial technologies could lead to more harm than help. So, what can we do?

Genetic Modification: Is this technology Inevitable?

Genetic Modification: Is this technology Inevitable?

Well, for starters, we can aim at developing a sound central testing agency for all BD organisms. This agency must be independent of all political pressures and should not be a part of the Government machinery. The counsel of this agency must be drawn from amongst knowledgeable people from all walks of life who will be at the receiving end of the technology. For example, it must constitute Scientists working in the fields of Agriculture, Environmental Sciences, Toxicology, Genetics, Animal testing and Professionals from the medical field.  This will enable data gathered from various tests to be put in perspective and to obtain the complete picture. Further, advice should be sought on the social, legal and financial impacts such technologies might have once they are implemented, specifically in the Indian context.

We can think of having experts from across the globe to pool their knowledge and experiences to improve existing evaluation methods and statistical tests. As we deal will newer proteins and by-products that may never have been produced in nature before, we need newer and more refined testing and analysis methods. These will have to be outlined and developed and validated for a truly objective evaluation of BD organisms.

GM Corn

GM Corn

Long term data needs to be meticulously gathered and evaluated and presented to the appropriate professional for analysis and deductions. Long-term pollen flow studies, for example will tell us if a particular plant is eliminating non-target species as well as the target one. This is important to maintain the ecological balance as well as to improve the existing transgenic technology. For, example, in 2002, in a study in the US, it was found that Bt-Corn pollen was blown by the wind into surrounding crops of Milkweed. This pollen ended up killing the Monarch Butterfly, along with the target Lepidopteran pest species. Thus pollen flow study data that is not just 6 months old would be invaluable in such cases.

Another concern is the inherent toxicity of the gene insert. While we are quite used to consuming DNA, the inserts used in transgenic technologies might have some pleiotropic and insertional mutagenic effects. Pleitropic effects may result in a single inserted gene causing multiple effects in the genome of the host (us) and mutagenic effects of course may result in mutational changes in the host genome. These effects may range from silencing the expression of some genes to over-expression of others leading to a range of disturbed physiological effects. Again sufficient long –term data need to be obtained as to whether any real harmful affects can be caused by these inserts. Many studies are inconclusive and the very nature of the study may not allow for proper interpretation of the results. Also, animal models need to be developed in earnest to be able to answer some of the interaction questions.

There are issues of allergenicity and toxigenicity to be addressed. How does one evaluate allergenicity of a molecule? Mostly related to proteinaceous molecules, allergenicity can be evaluated by three broad criteria. One is to simply determine overall structural similarity between the new protein (modified) and existing allergens. The second is to look at and compare the presence of certain specific amino acids or active sites (Epitopes) between the modified and existing allergens. The third is to test immunologically. Serum from an allergic person is taken and reacted with the new protein to check if any reaction is observed. This is a highly simplistic explanation of a tedious procedure, but it’s only to give you an idea of how the test is done. The important thing to remember is not to just assume that the new protein is similar to an existing one but to actually treat each new (modified) protein as a separate entity and to test for the same. If you remember, Monsanto- Mahyco, while testing for toxicity of the Bt-Brinjal, simply used the Microbial (Bacillus thuringiensis) Bt-Toxin and did not bother to extract the actual toxin from the plant. This could be dangerous as the inserts used in the case of the plant were different and cannot be simply expected to behave in an identical fashion in natural environments.

Apart from these are the ethical questions of allowing monopolistic market practices by multinational companies and becoming dependent for seeds on them needs to be tackled. The issues of backdoor entry of untried technologies and vested interests looking for short –term gains need to borne in mind. Loss of indigenous biodiversity and ignoring alternative framing practices all in name of being progressive will not do any good.  Like in all fields today, technology needs to be sustainable and nurturing.

These are just some of the many pressing questions that need to be addressed dispassionately and objectively if we hope to ever use any technology for the benefit of common people. We need to be able to sink our differences and arrive at a consensus and if we can do this, we would have won more than just the war over our beloved Brinjal.


Image Credits:  Corn:…/june2008/corn-GM.jpg