Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The truth about Bt brinjal


By K P Prabhakaran Nair

At a biotech industry conference in the US in 1999 a representative of the leading consulting firm Arthur Anderson (now defunct) asked Monsanto, the world’s number one agribusiness giant, what their ideal future looked like in 15-20 years. Monsanto representatives present replied: A world with 100 per cent seeds genetically modified and patented. Few people know that it was the legal firm of Hillary Clinton that represented Monsanto in one of the cases involving patent rights with genetically modified seeds. “Whether we like it or not, GM crops are here to stay” said the director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in New Delhi, not long ago. Outside his office activists of Greenpeace were protesting against the controversial Bt brinjal, which the ICAR and government are supporting.The next time you savour your baingan ki bartha or kathirikai poriyal, you might be ingesting some highly toxic Bt toxin as well. Yes, I am writing about the just released Bt brinjal. October 14 will go down in the history of Indian agriculture as the day when the government-controlled Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) unrolled the red carpet for Monsanto and changed the course of Indian agriculture for all the time to come.Jairam Ramesh, forest and environment minister, had assured us earlier that “There is a distinction between Bt cotton, which is a non-edible crop and Bt brinjal, an edible crop”, and now has gone public that the question of commercial and widespread cultivation of Bt brinjal in India will be ‘thoroughly’ examined before giving Cabinet clearance to the GEAC decision. Meanwhile concerned citizen groups, knowledgeable and committed scientists in India and overseas have termed the GEAC clearance a disaster for Indian agriculture. Let us now examine the controversy.On September 22, 2006 in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) in Supreme Court against genetically modified crops, the court ordered that the question of GM crops and foods be examined by independent, knowledgeable and committed bodies/scientists. The question then before the court involved Bt brinjal, which Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company), Monsanto’s Indian arm, had brought out and submitted to the GEAC for approval for commercial cultivation.The Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture set up an independent expert committee, with this author as chairman. The committee thoroughly examined the field data generated by Mahyco from all angles — from bio-safety protocol to marketing of end products — and submitted its report in late October. The committee noted the following breach of scientific protocols: The allerginicity of the protein extract from the Bt brinjal was tested on brown Norway rats and not on male rabbits as prescribed by the Department of Biotechnology; Department guidelines prescribe in vivo immunological assays for the detection of reactogenic antibodies in the test sera. This was not done; Though the Cry 1Ac gene was earlier considered innocuous, recent published scientific evidence indicates that the Cry 1 Ac protein from Bacillus thringiensis (Bt) — is a potent systemic and mucosal adjuvant, which enhances serum and intestinal lg G antibody responses. This is the most serious biochemical and bio-safety threat from Bt brinjal; The field data were not statistically analysed for precise scientific interpretations, and as such, the conclusions drawn are invalid. No cost-benefit ratio for the farmer was calculated to examine whether or not this ‘new’ technology was economically viable. For instance, the promoters say that farmers now spray the brinjal 25-60 times to control the stem borer. This would amount to spraying a crop of 120-130 days duration almost on alternate days. No sensible farmer would spend so much on insecticide.One of the most important parameters to test the safety of Bt crops is heat stability. Heat stability studies carried out on the Bt protein in Bt brinjal highlight serious lapses on the part of the GEAC, which, though a bio-safety watchdog, acts like the handmaiden of Monsanto. Heat stability tests demonstrate whether or not the Bt toxin persists after cooking. The company claims that, once cooked, the toxin is destroyed. Yet, available facts prove the contrary.Bt protein is present even in non-GM brinjal before cooking. What does it prove? Is it a serious slip of the experimental procedure, or is it because both Bt brinjal and non-Bt brinjal were grown on adjacent plots, without appropriate ‘refuge’ or safety distance (200 m) in place? This is a clear case of pollen transfer from Bt brinjal to non-Bt brinjal, which will be the prime reason for environmental contamination. Look at the other disturbing facts.Mahyco was conducting Bt brinjal field trials in West Bengal in 2007. But the matter was never communicated to the state government. The apex state agricultural university observed that it was asked to inspect Mahyco field trials on Bt rice and Bt okra at a very late stage when the crops were ready for harvest. No meaningful scientific data can be collected from such trials. Most distressingly, the farmer on whose fields the Bt rice was grown, was never told what it was. The same thing happened in Tamil Nadu, in Ramanathapuram district and Jharkhand two years ago. It is a distressing fact that it only in India do such clandestine things go on in the name of science.The Arthur Anderson strategy is clearly unfolding in India. The larger strategy of Monsanto is to control the entire seed industry in India in 10-15 years. Bt cotton was the first step. Bt brinjal is the second. Before long, it will be Bt rice (clandestine field trials were conducted in Ramanathapuram district in Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand two years ago), Bt maize (field trials have started in India), Bt sorghum, Bt cauliflower, Bt cabbage, and so forth. The first point is that brinjal has its origin in the Indian subcontinent. The biological rigour of a plant species is lost when it is genetically modified, more so in its place of origin. Mexico has vetoed genetic modification of maize, despite American pressure, as that is its place of origin. It is pathetic that India, with its gigantic agricultural set-up, mutely watches Monsanto bulldoze into our domain.Genetic manipulation of Bt brinjal will have far-reaching environmental and bio-safety consequences. Gene modification technology is in its infancy and totally unpredictable consequences could follow. The development of super weeds, observed recently in UK, is an example. But the most perplexing question of all is, who is behind this game to push a half-baked technology on unsuspecting millions? It does look as if India is up for sale, certainly its agriculture.

K P Prabhakaran Nair is chairman of a committee set up by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad