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.

Greater Kashmir, 28 August, 2014


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