Tuesday, April 21, 2015

We do not have the competence to play around with GM foods

To Bt or not to Bt? The debate rages again with the government lifting an 18-month freeze and clearing field trials of 13 genetically modified food crops, including the contentious mustard and brinjal. Suman Sahai, winner of the prestigious Norman Borlaug Award, heads Gene Campaign, an NGO working for sustainable agriculture. Here, the geneticist tells Jayashree Nandi why India is not ready for GM foods.

Are we prepared for field trials of GM crops?

At the outset, I would like to ask the government how has anything changed since the moratorium on Bt brinjal imposed by Jairam Ramesh in 2010? Our biosafety (prevention of risks associated with biotechnology processes) competence has not improved at all. Why are we going back and forth on giving permissions for trials when all the committees on GM crops have said we are not technically competent yet? 
The process of allowing Bt brinjal was halted because the scientific community was not able to make a case for it. Then, in 2012, Basudev Acharya's Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture report also concluded that we are not prepared. How can the government disregard the parliamentary committee completely? 
The other question is who asked for GM crops. Is it the farmers or consumers? After China, India is the biggest producer of brinjal and we have no insurmountable problems with it.

What is the difficulty in ensuring best practices are followed in these trials?

They are all procedural and understood, except nobody follows them. Take the trials of Bt rice conducted in Jharkhand in 2004. We found that one of the farms was in the midst of the farmers' fields. No signboard, no fencing, no containment of any sort. One farmer put in charge of it had been threshing the produce and may have even eaten it. Later we found volunteer plants (those that grow on their own) had come up on the farm. We sent them for testing and of course they were GM.

When we informed the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that Jharkhand has the highest genetic diversity of rice and such lapses contaminate everything, they sent us a showcause notice for entering the field instead of taking action against shoddy trials.

We need officials trained in genetics who can understand the biosafety data. We have none. Australia, New Zealand, Norway are countries have invested a lot in infrastructure for biosafety testing. India should send its scientists there to be trained.

What are the problems with crops that are being put under trial?

Both brinjal and mustard are cross-pollinating plants, so the consequences will be no single, non-GM mustard or brinjal left. Some say you can segregate, but have we managed to segregate Bt cotton? It has gone everywhere. We are not facing up to the truth. Eastern India is very vulnerable because there is a lot of brinjal diversity there.

Uniformity of biodiversity will have its own environmental implications. There is a well-known phenomenon called gene silencing. Very often plants altered genetically don't survive because you have interrupted the natural process. Those that do survive, certain genes may stop expressing. What can get silenced we have no idea. Yet we are ready to risk the entire germplasm.

Brinjal belongs to the Solanaceae family. It's the family of not just tomato, chilli and potato but also datura (angel's trumpets) and belladona. These are some of the most toxic plants. We can't fool around with this family. Natural toxins can be reconstituted; therefore safety testing should be rigorous and long. Why are we short-circuiting the biosafety process?

But Bt cotton is perceived to be a great success.

In 2002-03, we conducted the first evaluation of Bt cotton in Andhra and Vidarbha and found it had failed. It's clear that Bt cotton does much better in irrigated areas than in rain-fed areas. There is a claim that India has become the largest exporter of Bt cotton — that's not because productivity has increased but because the area covered by the crop has. It's the same story in Latin America with soyabean.

What is the impact on farmers?

Any technology the country is trying to adopt should be evaluated from the lens of the small farmer, or you will polarize farming communities even further. GM technology is expensive. Rain-fed farmers have suffered. Almost 80% of our farmers are very resource poor.

There is a thriving industry of spurious Bt cotton seeds because the original ones are not affordable. Non-GM seeds have disappeared.

How does the consumer ascertain if GM foods are safe?

We don't have a law on labelling GM foods. When we shove genes into chromosomes, the natural process is altered and new proteins are formed. That's why in GM we always test for toxicity and allergenicity to see if anything produced is poisonous or could cause allergies. This is why we need biosafety testing. Serious health impacts of GM foods have been documented. Consider the disappearance of monarch butterflies. The lacewing, which is its food, is eating GM pollen and the monarch's disappearance has been linked to that.

Are Indians already eating imported GM food?

We are consuming refined GM soya oil. We are also importing a lot of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is all GM corn. HFCS is also unhealthy and associated with metabolic disturbances. I suspect we may be consuming GM soya meal in some biscuits or soups.

Source: -Times of India, 02 Nov. 2014

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Experts urge caution on GM crops

Suman Sahai

A high-level committee chaired by T S R Subramanian was set up to examine and review six laws related to the environment. In its report submitted recently to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the committee recommended that the latest technologies be used to prepare an environmental map of the country. Despite its support for science and technology, the report has also warned that technologies should be used with caution, recognising their limitations.
As an example of how cautious use of technology is warranted, the Subramanian report cites the example of GM crops and the mindless use of science and technology in this case , with no reflection on its potential for harm. It says that the careless or 'unprepared'  introduction of GM crops presented the possibility of adverse effects on the environment  in the medium or long-term. Acknowledging that the country had no independent expert agencies (to judge the safety of GM crops), the Subramanian report urges caution upon the  Ministry of Environment and Forests in dealing with genetically modified crops. The report takes cognizance of the fact that Europe does not permit field trials of GM crops and recommends caution in the adoption of GM crops in India, saying that the small size of Indian farms would more easily facilitate genetic contamination, leading to a 'severe' adverse impact on biodiversity through gene flow.
The Subramanian report is not the only high-powered report urging vigilance and the adoption of the precautionary principle in the context of GM crops, particularly food crops. It is just the most recent of several other reports .
The Sopory  Committee Report  of 2012 was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture. Dr Sudhir Sopory, currently Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a molecular biologist by training, chaired a committee to examine the scandal surrounding the development of Bt Bikaneri Narma (BNBt) cotton, supposed to be India's first public sector Bt cotton which had to be withdrawn. 
The committee's findings raised disconcerting questions over the claims made by scientists who developed the BNBt cotton, the role of regulatory bodies, the public sector research institutions and their ethical standards. The establishments dealing with GMOs have been indicted in this report for lacking scientific expertise in GM technology, scientific deception and fraud, regulatory inefficiency and lack of monitoring and oversight. 
This indictment by the Sopory Committee was followed by the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture chaired by Sri Basudeb Acharia which has pointed out several flaws in the research and implementation of GM crops in the country. The committee specifically recommended that  the government must not allow field trials of GM crops till there is a 'strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system' in place. The committee held that this was not the case.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee also noted several shortcomings in the functioning, composition, powers and mandate of the GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM). It recommended that the Parliamentary Committees on Science and Technology and Environment and Forests should do a comprehensive examination of the role of the regulatory agencies and report this to Parliament.
Unhappy with the evidence presented to them, the Basudeb Acharia Committee recommended that a thorough probe be conducted  into the permission given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal. It went on to add that to avoid conflict of interest in outcomes, there should be an examination by independent scientists of research reports and assessments  that the GEAC relied on to declare the Bt Brinjal biosafety data adequate and to approve it for commercial release.
And finally there is the report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) that was set up by the Supreme Court in response to a writ petition filed by Gene Campaign in 2004, asking for an overhaul of the regulatory system for GMOs and greater technical competence in the structure of the regulatory bodies. 
In its interim report of 2012 to the Supreme Court, the TEC said that “Based on the safety dossiers, the TEC has found in unambiguous terms that at present the regulatory system has major gaps and these will require rethinking, investment and relearning to fix. A deeper understanding of the process of risk assessment is needed within the regulatory system for it to meet the needs of a proper biosafety evaluation. This is not available in the country at present. It is therefore recommended that the requisite understanding be developed through consultation, collaboration and capacity building”. 
The TEC report recommended that a number of corrective measures be adopted to improve the biosafety testing and quality of regulation of GM crops. It concluded by saying that a moratorium of ten years should be imposed on field trials of GM food crops and held that this time should be adequate to restructure and operationalise a strengthened regulatory mechanism. In its final report of 2013, the TEC repeated its findings and justified the basis for coming to the conclusions that it did, which was for the government to take steps to overhaul the structure and functioning of the regulatory bodies. It reiterated its recommendation for a ten-year moratorium on the commercialisation of GM food crops.
Despite all these high-powered and competent voices demanding an improvement in the shoddy and by all accounts compromised system of regulating GM crops, neither the UPA government nor the current Modi government has thought it fit to take action. Instead, after a back and forth on the issue, the Modi government has somewhat surreptitiously allowed the field trials of GM mustard and Bt Brinjal. 
The government must make a new beginning with a review of the existing reports and hold consultations to improve the regulatory system. Much thought and many inputs have gone into defining the contours of a rigorous and a credible regulatory system that can evaluate both the scientific and socio-economic impacts of GM crops. The output of such a review will enable policymakers to take correct decisions about this new and dichotomous technology.
 Source:- The Tribune, 06 Jan. 2015

Monday, October 20, 2014

Himalayan blunders at people’s peril

Climate studies show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. 

I left Srinagar a week before the floods. Passing by the Zero Kadal, Srinagar’s oldest bridge across the Jhelum I had remarked that the river was reduced to a nallah and if this was its appearance in the monsoon season, the health of the river was grim. Then within days the waters swelled and the Jhelum burst its banks.

Similar floods had hit Uttarakhand a year ago, in June 2013, centered around the Kedar Valley, involving the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. Heavy rain followed by flash floods caused large-scale destruction of life and property. The sad part is that in the truest sense of the expression, the disasters in Kedarnath and Kashmir were man-made. The combined effects of utter administrative failure and human greed enabling rampant, unauthorised construction across natural water channels and flood plains resulted in the devastation we saw in both places. Climate change is causing more and more extreme weather events like sudden storms and cyclones as well as cloudbursts accompanied by torrential rain and floods, but governments can prepare for these. People can be evacuated in time, relief and rescue can be planned ahead, preparations can be made to ensure availability of drinking water, food rations, medicines and clothing. All this was done by the Orissa government in preparation for Cyclone Phailin that struck the state in October 2013 so the impact of the cyclone was contained.

It’s not as though there have not been sufficient warnings about the potential for flooding in the Kashmir Valley. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Jammu and Kashmir had noted in 2009 that construction in the low-lying areas of Srinagar, especially along the banks of the Jhelum, had blocked the discharge channels of the river. The INTACH report predicted that natural disasters in the Kashmir Valley could cause widespread devastation. Recommendations for action to mitigate the danger were submitted to the government but nothing happened.

In 2010, a study done by the Jammu and Kashmir Flood Control Department predicted a major flood that would inundate Srinagar. The government ignored the warnings of the experts because the concerned minister considered the prediction of a flood in the Jhelum needlessly alarmist. Such a position can only stem from ignorance about the Kashmir region where floods have been a recurrent feature for at least a 100 years. Praveen Swami has traced the history of flooding in Srinagar in his article in a newspaper and shown how floods have regularly visited Srinagar since 1893. Unfortunately, the lessons of earlier disasters did not make a sufficient impression on successive governments for them to do anything to protect their beautiful city and its people. In 2012, the Jammu and Kashmir office of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) again predicted that massive flooding in Jammu and Kashmir was a distinct possibility. To this too, there was no administrative response.

Construction continues unabated. Despite expert advice, hydropower stations are being built without any evaluation of vulnerability and disaster potential. The hydro power projects on the Jhelum in Ganderbal and on the Chenab in Sach Khas are both examples of haphazard construction. Uttarakhand has gone the same way and suffered for it. Some 70 hydro power projects are planned on the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. If these projects go ahead, further disasters are likely.

Granted that hindsight is always 20/20 and everyone is cleverer after the event but the warnings about flooding in the Kashmir Valley have been many and government response has not been visible. Given the heavy and sustained rains this time, flooding was perhaps inevitable but the level of devastation was not. Three days before Srinagar was flooded, the Jhelum in Anantnag had already risen alarmingly high. High enough to warn the state administration of impending trouble in Srinagar and yet the government did not act to prepare the city for the coming floods and inundation.

Shockingly Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country that does not have monitoring centres to warn about rising levels in the rivers and lakes that dot this flood-prone region. A Central government proposal to set up flood monitoring stations has been pending for more than five years without the state government taking any action. The Jhelum is boxed in by urban settlements and the lakes into which excess water drains are very close to towns so there is little lead time to prepare for floods. All the more reason that a well-coordinated, efficient flood monitoring system was put in place.

Partisan politics has contributed its share to the misery in Kashmir. The state’s NDMA which should have been preparing for and managing the disaster, was rendered defunct because the Modi government had secured the resignation of eight members of the NDMA, including the chairperson because they had been appointed by the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This has cost the people of Kashmir hugely.
Climate studies clearly show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is particularly vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. We saw this in Uttarakhand in 2013 and now in Kashmir in 2014. Climate preparedness has to become an important part of all development planning, particularly in the susceptible mountain and coastal areas.

Political leaders and the bureaucratic machinery must be educated about climate change and its disaster potential. The lessons of Kedarnath and Kashmir are evident and they must be taken to heart by planners in the Central and state governments. There must be a comprehensive review of the development path that the country has set itself on. There will have to be radical changes in the philosophy of “growth at all costs” to ensure that the ecology is not destroyed beyond redemption. Nature has a way of hitting back when pushed beyond a point. We finally have to acknowledge that our planet has limits which must be respected if people want a secure existence.

Source: Asian Age, 11 October 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Should India permit GM foods?

We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations

Suman Sahai
Agbiotechnology is presented in many forms — the most common being that it will solve world hunger. To reinforce this claim, there is an interesting word play at work. Agbiotechnology is referred to as the ‘Evergreen Revolution’ or the 'Gene Revolution' but never genetic engineering, which is its correct name. Both Evergreen Revolution and Gene Revolution are deliberately coined terms which attempt to link Agbiotech with the Green Revolution. In the view of most political leaders and policymakers, the Green Revolution was a very positive happening that brought benefits in the form of high food production but more importantly, freedom from food imports and hence political and national sovereignty. 

The Green Revolution did in fact increase food production, principally the production of rice and wheat. It made India independent of food imports and firmed up its political spine. It ensured surplus grain that could be stored in buffer stocks to be rushed where need arose and it tried to ensure that famines were not anymore a feature of the Indian reality.
These gains were so visible that the downside, the unequal distribution of the benefits, of land and water degradation, the accompanying loss of genetic diversity and the persisting endemic hunger and poverty, could not take the shine off the Green Revolution. Because of this positive image, the promoters of Agbiotech draw semantic parallels, invoking the earlier agricultural revolution. 

The subliminal message that the spinmeisters of the Agbiotecg sector try to convey is: If the Green Revolution brought so many benefits, the Evergreen Revolution would bring all those in perpetuity. The word play has actually been quite successful. Political leaders and policymakers carry over the positive association with the Green Revolution to the Evergreen one. If the earlier version brought such benefits, the newer one (more precise, with greater possibilities, as the industry says) would surely bring even greater benefits to the farmers and the poor. Conveniently left out of this portrayal are the essential and crucial differences between the two 'revolutions'.
The Green Revolution (GR) was a publicly owned technology, belonging to the people. The research was conducted in public sector universities and research institutions with public money and created public goods to which everyone had access. There were no Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), no patents vested in multinational companies, no proprietary technologies or products. If there was ownership of the GR, it was vested in the farmer. Once the seed reached the farmers, it was theirs; they moved it where they wanted. Therefore, despite its faults, the Green Revolution addressed farmers' needs and India's food production showed an upward curve.
The Evergreen Revolution is almost the exact opposite. It is a privately owned technology. Six corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Dow and BASF Plant Science) control practically the entire research and output in the field of transgenic plants. Processes and products, including research methodologies, are shackled in patents and the farmer has no say, let alone any control. The technology creates only private goods that can be accessed only at a significant cost after paying licensing fees. In the case of Bt cotton, the only GM crop cultivated in India so far, a bag of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt cotton seed costs Rs. 1,600 as compared to around Rs 400 for superior varieties produced locally.

The seed belongs to the company, which strictly controls its movement. With the development of the popularly termed ‘terminator’ or sterile seed technology, the farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer, not a partner as in the case of the GR. The Evergreen Revolution has in its 20 years, not yet produced a crop variety that has any direct connection to hunger and nutritional needs. The most prevalent crops remain corn, soya, cotton and canola and the dominant traits are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Despite its other faults, the Green Revolution was able to put out a number of crop varieties in a short span of time that enabled direct yield increases, which brought immediate benefits to farmers. That in short is the contrast between the two revolutions, so assiduously camouflaged by the Agbiotech spinmeisters. 

India had participated enthusiastically in the Green Revolution and is on its way to equally enthusiastically embrace the Gene Revolution or Agbiotechnology. Yet there is little debate in the country on whether any lessons have been learnt from the Green Revolution. There is even less debate between policymakers and other stakeholders on whether GM crops are relevant to Indian agriculture and if so, what path we should adopt.

There is no consultation with the public or any sharing of information about GM research and trials, as is done in almost all countries that are implementing GM technology. The Department of Biotechnology has promoted research projects randomly without any assessment of farmers' needs and the best way to fulfil them. Civil society has been uneasy with the lack of transparency and the lack of competence in regulatory bodies; the media is largely uninformed and political leaders remain unaware of the direction this new and controversial technology is taking in India and have no say in determining what it should or should not do. 

This is not the way to adopt a new technology, especially one that comes with a string of compulsory regulations. GM technology must follow specific prescribed procedures and be tested stringently. What kind of GM technology should India adopt? Should it permit GM foods or should it ban them like Europe, Africa and many other countries have done? What should our policy be on GM food crops and non-food crops? We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations with a range of stakeholders. The process should be inclusive and transparent, allowing a range of expertise and insights to be brought into the decision-making process. And we should abide by the consensus view.

The writer is the founder of a research and advocacy organisation, Gene Campaign

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The health impacts of these changes is not very  clear, but the changes in the family of genes related to immunity and sugar metabolism detected in these babies, now teenagers, may put them at a greater risk to develop asthma, diabetes or obesity.
Canadian researchers report that the number of days an expectant mother was deprived of electricity during Quebec's Ice Storm (1998) predicts the epigenetic profile of her child. Scientists from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University have detected a distinctive signature in the DNA of children born in the aftermath of the massive Quebec ice storm.
Five months after the event, researchers recruited women who had been pregnant during the disaster and assessed their degrees of hardship and distress in a study called Project Ice Storm. Thirteen years later, the researchers found that DNA within the T cells of 36 children showed distinctive patterns in DNA methylation.
The scientists published their study (“DNA Methylation Signatures Triggered by Prenatal Maternal Stress Exposure to a Natural Disaster: Project Ice Storm”) in PLOS One.
“Prenatal maternal objective hardship was correlated with DNA methylation levels in 1,675 CGs affiliated with 957 genes predominantly related to immune function; maternal subjective distress was uncorrelated,” wrote the investigators. “DNA methylation changes in SCG5 and LTA, both highly correlated with maternal objective stress, were comparable in T cells, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), and saliva cells.”
The team concluded for the first time that maternal hardship predicted the degree of methylation of DNA in the T cells. The epigenetic signature plays a role in the way the genes express themselves. This study is also the first to show that it is the objective stress exposure (such as days without electricity) and not the degree of emotional distress in pregnant women that causes long-lasting changes in the epigenome of their babies.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not the China Way

Suman Sahai

“India should see the warning signals from China’s growth models. China’s top down, non-inclusive policy-making has kept social and environmental concerns out of its economic growth plan at great cost to its people and the quality of their life.”

We have looked to China these past several years partly as competitor, part in fear and often as an economic growth role model. The new Prime Minister is thought to have a good relationship with the leaders in China and the government is likely to build on that.
One of the first people to congratulate Narendra Modi and his government was Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and exchanges with Chinese leaders continue at a high level. The latest has been the very cordial meeting between Mr Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Brics Summit in Brazil.

There is much to emulate from China, starting with its discipline. The Chinese have invested heavily in basic education, health, agriculture and rural employment. They have become manufacturing giants and developed markets for their products. One of their interesting models is the chain of township and village enterprises which links rural produce to urban markets. China is also known for its firm policy-making aimed almost entirely at maintaining high growth figures. It is precisely this aspect that we need to observe with caution.

The new government is trying to move fast to make up for the years of policy paralysis of the last government, but it must hurry slowly. One single statement that projects worth `80,000 crore, which were held up by the environment ministry, will be cleared immediately has been sufficient to set off the disquiet. It is certain that many projects were held up because of bureaucratic red tape, but surely there were others that were held up because of serious enough shortcomings to warrant a review and even denial of permission.

Unbridled economic growth can extract a high price as we have seen in many countries including our own. In case of China, some of the consequences have been severe, especially in the field of agriculture and food production. According to Chinese reports, the country is battling with an unprecedented contamination of its agricultural land, a phenomenon that is assuming alarming proportions. The situation is so serious that large tracts of arable land have become unfit for food cultivation. Not just food, altogether 3.5 million hectares are thought to be so polluted now that they cannot support any kind of agriculture at all. Chinese scientists hold the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and indiscriminate dumping of industrial waste to be responsible for the poisoning of the land.

A study conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to evaluate the future of China’s food production potential came up with shocking findings. The study found that 40 per cent of China’s land is degraded and 20 per cent is so fouled up by industrial effluents, farm chemicals, sewage and waste water run-off from mining sites, as to have become almost unusable. The water resources are equally contaminated because a lot of water is being diverted to coal mining areas and the water that flows out from there is a toxic mix of chemicals. Contamination of the soil and water with toxic heavy metals like cadmium, nickel and arsenic is growing and is particularly high in the south-west region, which is China’s rice belt. The situation is so bad that large tracts of land are being abandoned by farmers who are afraid to eat the produce cultivated on such land.

The soil and water toxicity is impacting the food chain and contaminating the food. Rice samples taken from shops and restaurants traced the contaminated rice to the Hunan province, one of China’s most important rice growing regions. Contamination of food in the Hunan region should come as no surprise, given the fact that several industries in this area have come up in the vicinity of agricultural land and the heavily contaminated factory effluent flows straight into the rice fields. There are reports that high incidence of cancer is found in the regions near the polluting factories. This should remind us of our own “cancer train” running from Punjab to hospitals in Rajasthan. These trains carry cancer patients, mostly from farming areas which have been using deadly cocktails of chemical pesticides and excessive doses of chemical fertilisers. We should know we cannot allow this terrible situation to get any worse.

All this contamination of arable land and its becoming unfit for food production has high level policy implications. The situation is considered so grave by Chinese analysts that they fear for the country’s food security and food sovereignty. There is a real fear in policy circles that China may not be able to produce sufficient safe food to feed itself. Already affluent families that can afford to, are relying on imported foods and bottled water to feed their families. According to some reports, there is hoarding of food and water and a climate of fear about being able to eat safe food and drink clean water.
India should see the warning signals from such growth models and draw lessons from it. China’s top down, non-inclusive policy-making has kept social and environmental concerns out of its economic growth plan at great cost to its people and the quality of their life. The country already faces a challenge to its food security and the health of the environment has become a serious cause for concern. We must be cautioned by the China experience and do things differently. Yes, there must be firmness in policy-making and there must be timely and determined action. But the social and environmental aspects must be part of economic decision-making. The cost-benefit analysis of every project must be honest and transparent and inform the ultimate decision. Squandering our social capital for economic gains will be short sighted if not outright self-destructive.
The writer is a scientist and chairperson of Gene Campaign. She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Concerns about BT Brinjal

Suman Sahai

The only stakeholder in the game that stands to benefit from the introduction of Bt brinjal is the company that is producing its seeds.

There is a raging debate in the country about BT brinjal which is poised to become India’s first GM food if the biotech industry has its way. Its entry is resisted by scientists and civil society groups that question its safety.

Why could Bt brinjal be unsafe ? It belongs to the plant family Solanacea which has important food plants like potatoes, tomatoes and chilli but also the poisonous datura and the deadly nightshade ( belladonna). Many plants of the Solanaceae family are rich in complex chemicals called alkaloids and contain some of the  most poisonous plants known to mankind. They produce alkaloids in their roots, leaves and flowers. These alkaloids can be hallucinogens, stimulants or outright poisons. Even plants like potato ,that have had their toxins bred out by generations of out breeding, when exposed to light, produce a chemical called solanin which appears as a green tinge. Green potatoes can be toxic, damage an unborn fetus and cause abortions.

Farmers have worked for thousands of years to domesticate wild plants to make them safe for eating. Much of this exercise involved selecting out the toxins contained in the wild plants. Scientists too have used careful, selective breeding to  ‘clean up’ crop varieties which had good qualities but contained harmful substances. Now through genetic engineering, brinjal, a member of a family known to carry poisonous substances, has been genetically engineered to produce the Bt toxin inside the plant, to kill the bollworm pest. This seems to be a perverse process to reverse thousands of years of effort to detoxify natural plants to make them safe as human food ! 

Genetic engineering is still relatively new and the process is ad hoc. We have no control over what the foreign genes do once they are forced into cells by gene guns, which is how genetic engineering is done. This random and aggressive process creates new products in the cell which could be normal but could also be poisonous or harmful. There are many known instances of new compounds being produced in plants which were genetically engineered that were found to be harmful.

When GM peas were being developed by the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial  Research Organization)  in Australia to protect the peas from a pest called the pea weevil, it was found that newly formed proteins in the GM peas caused immunity problems and lung inflammation when fed to mice. The experiments had to be abandoned. In another case, when mice were fed the genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato, seven  out of forty experimental animals died within 14 days and the others suffered from stomach lesions.

Genetic Engineering in plants of the Solanaceae family could be dangerous since disturbing the balance of the cell’s genetic material through the process of inserting new genes specially the toxin producing Bt gene, may trigger off metabolic processes that have been lying dormant.  There are apprehensions that not only new toxins could develop but that old toxins that were removed by selective breeding, may reappear. Disturbing the cell metabolism by genetically engineering of species that are naturally genetically hardwired to produce toxins,  is likely to call up old plant toxins in these species.

Testing for food safety is a crucial component of genetically engineered plants; it becomes more so with plants of the Solanaceae family. At present safety testing of GM crops is very poorly done in India and all kinds of short cuts are being used. The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court to examine the way GM crops are being tested , has delivered a scathing report about the inefficiency and lack of competence in the regulatory bodies. The TEC has therefore recommended a ten year moratorium on releasing GM foods since poor testing could prove to be a threat to human health.

Apart from the critical safety issues, there are other questions that arise with the proposed release of Bt brinjal. There is no system in place for labeling these foods. Indeed, how can one , in the Indian situation label  a vegetable that will be sold from farmers’ fields, laden into trucks and taken to wholesale mandis. How will the vegetables on the vendor’s cart or the corner shop be labeled  as GM?

The government of India acknowledges the need to label GM food, and its official position in international forums has been for mandatory labelling. Accordingly, the Ministry of Health has drafted rules under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to include labelling of Genetically Engineered food and food ingredients.. But there  are as yet, no mechanisms in place to label GE food and food products, nor have any awareness programs been conducted to explain the nature of GM foods and the need for labelling them.  For most consumers, especially rural consumers, GM foods are a black box and unless they are made aware of the nature of GE foods, labelling would be meaningless. Putting GM foods on the market without provisions for labeling, would amount to taking away the consumer’s right to informed choice about their food. This right is enshrined in India’s Consumer Protection Act. 

There is no reason to introduce Bt brinjal. Farmers have not asked for it, it is not a crop of any great relevance to food security, nor is it a crop that has a more than average pest problem. The only stakeholder in the game that stands to benefit from the introduction of Bt brinjal is Mahyco-Monsanto , the company that is producing its seeds.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in genetics. She is the founder of the research and advocacy organisation Gene Campaign. www.genecampaign.org

Greater Kashmir, 28 August, 2014