The Bt Brinjal Saga

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Bt Brinjal Saga. P M Bhargava. Combat Law, March 2010, pp.165-7.

The ultimate goal of Monsanto-led Bt brinjal in India is to obtain control over Indian agriculture. With 60 percent of the population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would effectively mean not only complete control over our food security but also a direct threat to our farmers and rural sector. Whosoever controls the seed and agro-chemical production in the country, will control India, writes Dr Pushpa Bhargav

Genetic modification of living organisms (GM technology) is a fantastic technology but, like nuclear technology, it must be used in a responsible and restraint way. While we have done well in using it in the medical sector, we have failed in doing so in the field of agriculture.

On October 14, 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the ministry of environment and forests cleared the environmental release of the first genetically modified food crop in India — Bt brinjal. This approval was given on the basis of a report of an Expert Committee-II, which was appointed by the GEAC to look into the many criticisms by a number of distinguished scientists from various parts of the world and this writer, on the bio-safety studies conducted by the seed giant Monsanto on Bt brinjal. The big question is what would such an approval mean to a country like ours?

India tops the chart in producing the largest number of vegetables (over 150) with a vast variety in many of them. Our eventual potential for export of our vegetables, many of which have important pharmacological action, is enormous and could easily run into a hundred thousand crores a year. We can capture, say, three quarters of the world vegetable market. However, all this market would be lost if we allow GM vegetables to penetrate it. Eighty four percent of our farmer community consists of small or marginal farmers with a holding of less than four hectares land. According to Monsanto data, Bt brinjal pollen can travel for 30 metres and could thus easily contaminate the neighbouring non-Bt brinjal field. In course of time, we would be left with no non-Bt yield even if the farmers do not want the transgenic crop. Unlike in Europe, Britain and many other countries, India has no labelling laws. In these countries, any food product which has more than 0.9 percent of GM material must be labelled as genetically modified item. Therefore, we would neither be able to export our vegetables stock nor exercise choice with regard to GM brinjal or a non-GM brinjal. There is an ever-increasing demand everywhere, including our country, for organically grown food which fetches the farmer better price. This market will also be lost with the introduction of GM foods.

Then, if we really need Bt brinjal, why did we not do so ourselves? We did not need a foreign company to do that. With many other GM food crops in the pipeline of foreign multinationals, wouldn’t this be the first step of megacorps acquiring total control over our food business and thus our food security. What kind of a free country we would then be?

Monsanto, the agri-seed giant that is introducing Bt brinjal in India is amongst the most unethical companies in the world, as its documented virtually criminal record shows. The first step of Monsanto was to control cotton production as a test case and to ensure in the process that strategies for removing all barriers that may come in the way of the eventual objective of controlling food production through control of seed production by providing new types of seeds such as GM seeds are removed.

There is no doubt that Bt cotton has benefitted some farmers and, in the balance, there has been a rise in the production of cotton. There is also no doubt that many farmers have suffered because Bt cotton did not work in their case, or caused allergy, or led to the death of their cattle that grazed on the remnants of the cotton plants after cotton had been harvested. However, all these problems have been pushed under the carpet by the powers that be, that too, in spite of the virtually uninterrupted record of Monsanto over four decades of breaking laws and engaging in unethical acts.

According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Monsanto bribed at least 140 Indonesian officials or their families to get Bt cotton approved without environmental impact assessment. In 2005, the firm paid $ 1.5 million in fine to the US justice department for the graft. This is one of the many penalties that Monsanto has paid in its country of origin in spite of its close ties with the US government and its various regulatory agencies. A recent letter of India’s Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reveals that many American companies have bribed Indian officials in the past to obtain favours.

What is Bt brinjal?

Bt brinjal is a transgenic variety of brinjal, which contains a gene (Cry1Ac), artificially introduced into its genome, mainly from a soil bacterium called bacillus thuringienesis (Bt). This is said to give the brinjal plant resistance against insects like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit Borer (Helicoverpa armigera).

How can you differentiate between Bt brinjal and non-Bt varieties of brinjal?

Bt brinjal does not look any different from non-Bt varieties. They cannot be differentiated just by looking at them. In fact, the only way to tell them apart is elaborate and expensive laboratory tests. This leaves consumers with no choice in the matter.

Who is developing Bt brinjal, and why?

Bt Brinjal is being developed in India by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), a subsidiary of the multinational Monsanto. Although they claim that genetically modifying crops will increase yield, this has not been proved in the history of GM crops, for any crop anywhere in the world.

There is a first information report (FIR) filed on June 27, 2009 under sections 154 and 157 of CPC by a major seed company located in Hyderabad against the member-secretary of the RCGM (Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation) of the department of biotechnology (DBT) of the government of India. The accused also happens to be a member of the GEAC. For the procedural clearances and approvals all cases of GM crops first go to the RCGM, which gives the bio-safety clearance, and then it moves on to the GEAC for large-scale trials and eventual environmental release. The FIR mentioned the scientist as “causing serious problems and huge loss to the company, by delaying or denying approvals of Bt cotton because of the company not meeting (his) illegal and unfair demands in cash or kind.”

The Chairman of EC-II, Dr Arjula Reddy, with whom my association is decades old, confided in me recently that eight of the tests that I had recommended to be done on Bt brinjal, had not been carried out by Monsanto. He added that even in the case of tests that have been done so far, many have not been done satisfactorily. Reddy was, however, under ‘tremendous pressure’ from “agriculture minister, GEAC and industry” to clear the Bt brinjal. In retrospect, I believe that he too “succumbed”. Knowing Monsanto’s record, and our own, it can be surmised as to how he was brought around.

The story so far

2000 : Breeding for integration of Bt gene-Cry1Ac-into brinjal hybrids

2001-02 : Preliminary evaluation to study growth, development and efficacy of Bt brinjal

2002-04 : Field trials begin

2004-05 : Data on the effects of Bt brinjal on soil microflora efficacy against fruit-shoot borer, pollen flow and chemical composition submitted to the Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM)

2004 : RCGM approves conducting multi-location research trials of eight Bt brinjal hybrids

2004-07 : Multi-location research trials conducted by Mahyco and all India coordinated vegetable improvement project under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research

2006-07 : Data submitted to Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) 2007-08. GEAC approved eight Bt brinjal hybrids for large-scale field trials. Trials conducted

2008-09 : GEAC approved the experimental seed production of seven Bt brinjal hybrids on 0.1 acre per hybrid

2009 : Under consideration for commercial release

–Courtesy Greenpeace

The report of EC-II committee, on the basis of which permission is granted for environmental release of Bt brinjal, is full of internal inconsistencies and glaring discrepancies between the data that was
made available earlier and what is in the report, besides numerous inaccurate and fallacious statements.
Sample this:

(i) The report says that the chimeric Bt protein that they used was 99.4 percent identical to the native Bt protein in terms of the number of amino acids which are constituent units of all proteins. The number of amino acids in the protein is reported to be 1,178. A 0.6 percent difference would mean a difference of at least six amino acids. However, the report says that the difference is only of one amino acid.

(2) In the data on Bt brinjal put up by the GEAC on the website, there is a report on chemical fingerprinting of Bt and non-Bt brinjal. In the report, it is mentioned that the abundance of alkaloid, solamargine, in the non-Bt brinjal powder is 0.0272 percent while that in the Bt brinjal powder is 0.0209 percent, a difference of 30 percent which is very significant. The same is true of several other analysis. However, in the report of EC-II, it is mentioned “the alkaloid profiles from powder samples of fruit and root of Bt and non-Bt (brinjal) are the same with not much of appreciable variation in their relative abundances.”

(3) Unbiased scientists have repeatedly said that to understand the various chemical and related differences between non-and-Bt brinjal (and other GM crops) and the functional significance of these differences, proteomic, transcriptomic and metabolonomic analysis must be done. These are today standardised, validated and widely used techniques. There are three international highly-cited journals totally devoted to proteomics. A business concern in Hyderabad does undertake proteomic analysis for its customers. But the comment of EC-II justifying Monsanto not using these techniques for bio-safety study is that these techniques are “currently in their infancy”.

No note has also been taken by the RCGM or GEAC of the fact that GM crops are banned in most parts of the world; they are largely confined to four countries: the US, Canada, Argentina and Brazil. They are banned in most countries of the European Union and in the UK. Countries such as Greece, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and even small states such as Tasmania have banned them specially.

An important question that may be asked in regard to Bt cotton and now Bt brinjal is: Did we need them? We have already shown integrated pest management (IPM) and bio-pesticides that we have developed, to be eminently successful for both cotton and brinjal – in fact, for 85 crops.

The use of IPM is a part of the national agricultural policy passed by Parliament in 2001. We have not used it because it has been more rewarding for those in power to have Monsanto propagate its Bt cotton – and now Bt brinjal.

Genetic engineering is one of the most powerful technologies in the world. However, like nuclear technologies or space technologies, we need to ensure that it is used not to fill the coffers of a few but for public good. For this, we would need to set up our own laboratory which would have high public credibility and which could do all the required bio-safety and related tests. We should also determine whether we need Bt brinjal at all. In other words, we must do a socio-economic survey.

If, in spite of all the above, we find that we need Bt brinjal, then we should set up an appropriate testing mechanism that would ensure that all the required safety tests can be done — and then make our own Bt brinjal. Last but not the least we must pass labelling laws according to which any product that contains more than 0.01 percent of GM food material must be labelled as GM. We must know what we are eating.

The implications are obvious. Therefore, the call of the minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, to defer the decision on environmental release of Bt brinjal until we have had enough time for review and discussion is wise, fair and courageous, and needs to be admired and supported.

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