The Story of Genetically Modified Brinjal

By Geeta Padmanabhan

eggplantOn October 14, 2009, the Indian government’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) cleared the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) brinjal (eggplant, aubergine, baingan). For the first time a GM food crop was approved in India.

GEAC is an ad-hoc 30-member committee. Its members are mainly bureaucrats and scientists from state institutions. There is no other regulatory agency.

A huge uproar followed the announcement all across the country. Before we go into that, here are some basic facts.

The vegetable originated in India. Half a million hectares go under an annual baingan crop for an output of 8.4 million tonnes. We have a choice of nearly 200 varieties. The transgenic brinjal was developed by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company) in collaboration with the US-based transnational, Monsanto. It involves the insertion of a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the DNA or genetic code of the vegetable to produce pesticidal toxins in every cell.

You can imagine what the GEAC clearance meant. Once Bt brinjal was approved for commercial cultivation, there’s nothing to stop other GM food crops like rice, maize, soybean and sorghum from coming in through the open door. Bt brinjal means directly introducing a genetically engineered vegetable into India’s food chain. The silver lining was Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had publicly opposed GM foods only months ago.

Do we have experts talking on this? Yes, one is Professor P M Bhargava, biologist, GEAC’s only independent expert, appointed by the Supreme Court. Another is Biotechnologist Sultan Ismail of Chennai. They both say that a majority of the necessary bio-safety tests were skipped before the clearance was given. That in itself is a strong reason for refusing to approve Bt brinjal. We don’t know enough about the effects of insertion of alien genes on the recipient organism, about the risk of transfer of those genes to human organ systems or viruses and hence about the impact on human and animal health and the environment. (Read article by Praful Bidwai)

Intense opposition for Bt. brinjal came from several NGOs and state governments (Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar). Two weeks ago, the government put on hold commercial cultivation of GM brinjal till such time independent scientific studies established, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product on human and animal in the long-term.

Why do we oppose it?
THREAT TO BRINJAL DIVERSITY
Genetic engineering should not be allowed in the “centre of origin” (of brinjal) as it could lead to the loss of original varieties by transgenic cross-pollination .
Counterview from Mahyco: “The origin of cultivated brinjal is uncertain, with differing views put forward by scientists . South America and Indo-China are thought to be areas of origin. India is considered a centre of diversity.”

TOXIN PUT IN BRINJAL NOT SAFE FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION
Bt brinjal is fatal to a pest called fruit-and-shoot borer. Some scientists question the premise that the Bt gene acts only in the alkaline environment found in the gut of insects. For, the human digestive system is acidic only in the stomach while the rest of it is alkaline. The study done by Mahyco on rats allegedly does not address possible human dangers such as cancer, infertility and kidney damage.
Counterview: The Bt gene breaks down during digestion into common amino acids, which are part of the normal diet and are neither toxic nor allergic.

PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE
Bt brinjal has been developed for the first time anywhere in the world. Precautionary principle requires that its clearance should have been withheld because of the uncertainty and irreversibility of its long-term implications for health and environment .
Counterview from Mahyco: There is no cause for alarm over Bt Brinjal as Bt cotton, the GM crop introduced in India in 2002, “is already in our food chain” . For, about 11 lakh tons of Bt cotton oil is consumed annually by people, directly or through vanaspati. “As the Bt gene present in cotton is identical to that used in brinjal, there is a strong precedence for safety of the gene itself.”

NO LABELING AND LIABILITY REGIME
It is a matter of consumer choice. Introduction of Bt brinjal be put off till a mechanism of mandatory labeling is put in place. But then, how will GM food be labeled in a country where vegetables are not sold only in supermarkets? And how feasible is it to maintain the segregation from the field to the market? Worse, there is no law fixing liability in the event of contamination of non-Bt brinjal by the GM variety.

LEGALLY UNTENABLE

GM products, without proper labelling, was illegal and attracted penal action under the Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act, 1992.

SPURIOUS SEED TRADE
Asked about the possibility of spurious Bt brinjal seeds making their way into India, Ramesh said it was up to state governments to check this. “I hope we don’t see a repeat of Bt cotton where spurious and illegal Bt cotton seeds found their way into the market.”

“A moratorium implies rejection of this particular case of release for the time being; it does not, in any way, mean conditional acceptance,” said Jairam Ramesh. The decision followed his month-long public consultations in seven cities across the country. The opposition was loud, dramatic and acrimonious.

“I am not getting into any timeframe . . . the moratorium will continue for as long as it is needed to establish public trust and confidence,” JR said. He admitted that the current standards followed by GEAC in coming to its decision on Bt brinjal did not match with the global regulatory norms. “GEAC processes need to be changed and made more transparent,” he said.

A little bit of Google search will reveal the murky details of GEAC’s work with Bt brinjal. A PIL was filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues seeking a moratorium on GM crops. The Supreme Court was appalled to discover that the GEAC was rubberstamping recommendations made by the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), a part of the Department of Biotechnology, promoter of GM crops.

I am not going into the details now, but it is enough to say that GEAC was pulled up for contempt of court. And Bhargava’s view on the incompleteness of the safety assessment was vindicated by the GEAC’s disclosure of another installment of raw data on the bio-safety of Bt brinjal on November 17, more than a month after it had already cleared the crop.

The moratorium is confined to Bt brinjal. It would not cover the issue of genetic engineering and biotechnology in agriculture. Still, it was a victory for the farmers and concerned NGOs who had opposed it.

Now we realize we breathed easy too early. The battle starts all over again. Science and technology minister Prithviraj Chavan is our opponent now.

Mr. Chavan seems to be fuming over the public rejection of Bt Brinjal. He will be introducing a GM bill to make it easy to legalize cultivation of bt. brinjal, rice, etc. What is interesting is the letter he has written in support of the GM crops. It in he has copied word for word paras from a study funded by biotech seed companies, including Monsanto. He has not included any public inputs in it. This letter representing commercial interests is now a part of the official documents being referred to by the Prime Minister’s office. Why has he done it?

And here is the alarming part:
Chavan’s bill would create a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), a small body of technocrats whose decisions cannot be questioned. If passed, this bill will deny the State governments’ rights to say no and BRAI will escape the purview of the Right To Information Act – both of which helped stop Bt Brinjal. The citizens of this country will never be able to stop genetic contamination of rice or any of the other food crops in the pipeline.

Check out http://epaper.expressbuzz.com/NE/NE/2010/02/26/ArticleHtmls/26_02_2010_001_010.shtml?Mode=1

Here’s something you can do about it.

Sign the petition to the Prime Minister of India and save our food from genetic contamination:

http://greenpeace.in/safefood/chavan-petition/

UPDATE: A message from Greenpeace India

More than 23,000 have signed the petition asking Prime Minister Singh to stop Prithviraj Chavan’s unconstitutional bio-tech bill.

We’ll deliver the petition to the PM, but now he needs to be pressurized further to get him to kill this bill.

Can you give the Prime Minister a call and ask him to stop Chavan’s bio-tech bill? When you call, you can say something like: “Minister Chavan has betrayed the public trust by doing the dirty work of bio-tech giants. The Prime Minister should throw out Chavan’s corrupt GM bill.” Here’s the number.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Phone: +91-11-23012312

Then click here to let us know you called. Tracking the number of calls is key:

http://greenpeace.in/safefood/thanks-for-calling-the-pm/

You don’t need to be an expert to call. Just speak from the heart, and tell the PM’s office your opinion.

Mr. Chavan wrote a letter supporting Bt Brinjal, copied word for word from reports funded by bio-tech corporations like Monsanto, and now he has drafted the GM bill to cater to their interests.

In just the past week, Monsanto admitted that Bt Cotton — the only GM crop in India — has failed to stop pests,[1] but Chavan is still pushing for the BRAI bill.

Here’s how the bill would make it easier to approve Bt Brinjal and other genetically modified foods:

* The bill would create a small body of technocrats who take the final decision on the genetic tampering of brinjal, rice, and more. There is no place for public opinion, State governments, other ministries, or any elected representatives like panchayats.[2]
* The science and technology ministry is already responsible for promoting GM crops. It would be a conflict of interests for the same ministry to regulate GM crops.
* The bill has provisions to imprison and fine people who raise concerns on GM crops.[3]
* The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information states that the bill subverts the Right to Information (RTI) act by letting the authority decide what information can be disclosed to the public, instead of the Central Information Commission of the RTI act. The bill thus overrides the powers of the commission which is an impartial body to decide public interest.
* The biotech corporations automatically get a seat in the advisory councils of the very body that’s supposed to regulate them.

Give Dr. Singh a buzz and tell him to save your food and your rights. The Prime Minister is accountable to all citizens of our country, so your voice can create change. Call him now:

Thanks a billion!

Picture courtesy woodleywonderworks via creative commons.

2 thoughts on “The Story of Genetically Modified Brinjal

  1. Srini Srinivasan

    Eye opener. Well written and thanks for highlighting the issue. Should easily be one of the scariest developments for India. Curious about what the lobby would say in their defense. Is it possible that the leaders are motivated by a need to feed millions of people who cannot afford food?

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    Reply
    1. Vidya Pradhan Post author

      Interesting you should bring that last point up. Though I am cynical enough not to believe that Indian political leaders are motivated by altruism or the desire to serve their constituents, there are certainly mainstream scientists in India who support GM foods using that same logic. However, in this case, there is ample evidence that GM seeds are not required to support the local populace, and enough experience to suggest that the mechanism to propagate and distribute the GM seeds are highly detrimental to small farmers.

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