TO B(t) OR NOT TO B(t)

Published: March 31, 2010 - 17:28 Updated: February 24, 2012 - 17:21

Gigantic, greedy, powerful and monopolistic multinational companies are using muscle and media power to push through genetically modified food products, backed by parasitic lobbies in India peddling completely unscientific evidence. 
Shaweta Anand Delhi

Those opposed to GM-food may be happy to see how Union Environment Minister Minister Ramesh stopped Bt brinjal's commercial release after public consultations. However, the way the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) draft bill is taking shape, with its draconian clauses to thwart any anti-GM voices, it wouldn't be too surprising if we are found chewing Bt vegetables in the near future, without even knowing it! Quite like the civilian nuclear deal with the United States that went through all kinds of legislative and political convulsions before it was passed in Parliament, the clearance of Bt brinjal is expected to test similar frontiers of Indo-US strategic partnership -- this time in the realm of agriculture.

Despite the minister's assurance that the period of six months would be used for getting scientific opinion and a better appreciation of this ticklish issue, there are core issues that must be dealt with before the country faces the same challenge again -- to B(t) or not to B(t)?

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a toxic, soil-based bacteria, which is being genetically engineered into food crops so that they can ward off pest-attacks 'most effectively' as the new toxin-laden plant will kill any pest that dares to feast on it for breakfast. Indeed, US-based agri-giant — Monsanto — has grown from being a chemical company into one of the highest money spinners through transgenic technology, that is, the technology of transferring genes from one kind of organism to another, across different species.

Farm animals are largely fed Bt corn and Bt soya and roughly 70-80 per cent of what humans consume has derivatives of the same processed GM-food. "Even though it does not establish a cause and effect relationship, it gives prima facie evidence that there could be a causal relationship between rising consumption of GM-food and rising gastrointestinal disorders as curves for both these observations overlap," says Dr Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, scientist and Supreme Court-appointed nominee to observe functioning of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), ministry of environment and forests. He was speaking at a colloquium on Bt brinjal in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in January, 2010. He was interviewed by Hardnews later.

In his book called First the Seed, Jack Ralph Kloppenburg Jr, of the University of Wisconsin, writes: "Both translational and the 'genetic research boutiques' are gearing to enter a market for seed that is projected to be $7 billion dollars in US alone by the year 2000." In a 2008 article titled Monsanto's Rich Harvest in the Business Week, author Brain Hindo says: "The company's first-quarter earnings nearly tripled, from $90 million to $256 million... Sales for the period rose 36 per cent to $2.1 billion." This can give a fair idea about how fast this industry is growing.

Narrating the experience of African country Zambia with regard to GM-food, Bhargava said, "US had offered GM-corn to Zambia in the past, which they flatly refused because genetically modified genes would contaminate other crops as well. The country exports many of its non-GM foods to Europe where maximum people prefer non GM-food. So Zambians chose to protect their own export market outside by refusing the US. While in India, we don't realise that with the different kinds of vegetables we have -- some of them with pharmacological properties (karela, drumsticks etc) — we could become leaders of the world's (non-GM) vegetable market in future. But if we let in Bt brinjal now, we will open the floodgates for 20 other kinds of GM-vegetables, besides closing our doors to the world vegetable market, forever."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a bilateral deal during his trip to the US in 2005 and said in his speech to the US Congress: "(India's) first Green Revolution benefited in substantial measure from assistance provided by the US. We are hopeful that the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture will become the harbinger of a second green revolution in our country."

It has to be pointed out that no debate proceeded in the public domain or amidst the policy-making elite in India on such a deal or contours of the second green revolution, if any, says Kavita Karuganti of the Kheti Virasat Mission in her overview of the KIA.

The Indo-US KIA document mentions the following: "Launching the KIA with a three-year financial commitment to link our universities, technical institutions, and businesses to support agriculture education, joint research, and capacity-building projects including in the area of biotechnology..."

It is not surprising that this initiative was signed to 'guide' Indian agricultural research over these three years with a budget of Rs 350 crore with maximum outlay for biotechnology (Rs 214.5 crore). No marks for guessing who sits on the KIA board from the American side -- Monsanto, WalMart and Archer Daniels Midland company, three agribusiness giants who have always wanted to monopolise the market of agricultural input and output, informed Karuganti, talking to Hardnews.

"It is little wonder then that about 35 per cent of our agricultural research focuses on preparing Bt products as a majority of the Indian scientific community continue to chase the Bt gene," said Dr Suman Sahai, senior scientist and Convenor of Gene Campaign.

In an analysis offered by Rajeshwari S Raina, the Indo-US collaboration document is based on 'a consideration mechanism' among senior Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) officers, select VCs of state agricultural universities, directors of national institutes, private organisations and other stake holders. There is no mention of consultation with farmers.

"The basic problem is that Indian scientists or 'experts' feel they know everything, including the practical aspects of agricultural practices that farmers know better about. There is an unfortunate gap between the powerful, privileged scientific community and the farmer," said Prof KJ Mukherjee of the Centre of Biotechnology, JNU.

If farmers were asked, they could have probably suggested more uses of biotechnology in our country, but alas, our scientists are busy preparing Bt bhindi, Bt potato, Bt tomato, Bt cauliflower etc, as if all our food security woes will get resolved by hammering out that single toxic Bt gene. Monsanto gets paid every time there is a sale of any Bt product anywhere in the world.

After all, Monsanto 'owns' the Bt gene and get license fees for every sale made. To top it all, bacterial wilt is the main pest that affects brinjal not shoot and fruit borer to kill which Bt brinjal got made in the first place, notes Sahai. One can clearly see how this business is single-mindedly market-driven and not based on the needs of farmers.

Whether Bt brinjal eventually comes through or not (most probably it will), there are serious issues with our preparedness. Inadequate, long-term testing of genetically modified food products for assessing their impact on health of human beings is one major problem. There are no labelling laws that could enable consumers to differentiate between GM and non-GM food. Even if one consumes GM food -- knowingly or unknowingly-- there are no liability laws that fix responsibility on someone in case of adverse health impact. The biggest concern is regarding correlation of appearance of disease in humans and GM-food consumption in the absence of a post-release monitoring system, which should ideally be in place before introducing genetically modified food products in the market. Clearly, we are not prepared for consuming GM-food products safely, not just yet. Besides, why should we, if long-term independent tests establish that they are unsafe for human consumption?

A report on health impacts of GM-foods by 'Doctors for Food and Biosafety'-- a network of concerned Indian medical professionals -- should sound like a wake-up call for a majority of Indian policy makers, agricultural scientists and agri-businessmen, who apparently want to bypass rigorous testing mechanisms and allow GM-food products to enter Indian markets as soon as possible.

In an interview to Hardnews, Dr GPI Singh of the doctors' network said, "There are 65 documented evidences of adverse health effects related to consumption and exposure to GM crops -- food or non-food." Their report urges policy makers to utilize the Precautionary Principle approach that mandates rigorous, long-term testing by independent scientific bodies since GM-food once released in the environment cannot be recalled as easily as harmful agro-chemicals like DDT. Once released, the effects of GM crops could stay on for a lengthy time-period. Long-term testing is crucial instead of the 90-day safety trials conducted on rats by Mahyco – the Maharashtra-based Biotech Company that manufactures Bt brinjal.

Monsanto constantly claims that it's Mahyco which is involved, when controversy hits it. Incidentally, Monsanto has 26 per cent shares in Mahyco.

Among studies quoted in this report, crucial is one conducted by Austrian scientists (2008) that found reproductive issues with third and fourth generation mice eating Bt corn. In another study done by Italian scientists (2008), there were alterations in immune reactions in young and old mice that were fed Bt maize.

Noted epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman of Institute of Health and Environmental Research, Australia, analysed the food safety evaluation for Bt brinjal as done by Mahyco and found issues with their research methodology. Jairam Ramesh acknowledged Carman's view in his public statement on Bt brinjal after introducing a moratorium on its commercial use in February this year. Carman is facing trouble in her own country for speaking out against interests of powerful biotech companies.

Carman's report reveals stunning facts that were probably missed by the powerful people and media outfits promoting GM-food: "...if this GM-brinjal comes into the Indian food supply, then every Indian will be eating it, resulting in 1.15 billion Indians exposed to the GM-brinjal. Some of those exposed will be children or the elderly. Some of those exposed will already be ill with cancer, auto-immune problems, heart disease, diabetes, or infectious diseases. Because of the number of people exposed, if GM-brinjal is later found to cause illness, it could cause significant economic and social problems for India. For example, if only 1 in 1,000 of exposed people later gets ill, or has an underlying illness made worse, then over a thousand million Indians would be ill and requiring treatment."

In an exclusive interview with Hardnews, she said: "What happens is that studies conducted are of a small sample size and concern animal production (since they are mostly reared in bulk for slaughter houses and cheap meat in the US), not their health, which is where the focus should ideally be. A very real problem faced by independent researchers is of getting samples of GM-crops for research. Anyone who buys GM-crops has a contract with Monsanto that states in its terms that GM-material provided cannot be used for research purposes. The product (Bt) is patented by Monsanto, so much so, those farmers, who are not even growing GM-crops, who are found to have traces of Bt, are heavily fined by the company, even if the gene naturally cross-pollinated and got carried to a non-GM field by itself!"

Emphasising the necessity of long-term testing, Sahai said, "When you insert a gene into a new organism in a fairly aggressive manner, you do not know where that gene will go and sit and how many copies of it will get made... Gene regulation is not something we understand to the fullest extent, but when you disturb genetic material of the organism by adding new genetic material, chances are that its local environment will change and its regulation could change too. Hence the importance of long-term testing for toxicity and allergicity to check for formation of new proteins."

Further, Bhargava asserted, "the toxic gene might insert itself in a beneficial gene and disturb its function or it might lead to formation of new proteins or deletion of useful ones. Only adequate and rigorous safety testing can resolve that doubt. But GEAC has done none of these tests. It has basically believed the safety tests done by the company!"

In October 2009, the GEAC gave clearance to the release of commercial use of Bt brinjal after few years of introduction of Bt cotton in India. There are company claims that farmers have benefited immensely from rising cotton yields since Bt toxin -- the toxic gene to kill pests that ingest it-- got introduced in ordinary cotton varieties, Others on the ground, however, give abundant evidence regarding instances of allergies, cattle deaths and farmer suicides due to rising agricultural input costs that includes purchasing relatively expensive Bt cotton seeds every season.

"Where can a farmer go and register a complaint about allergic reactions he developed after exposure to Bt crops? Even the local agricultural officer doesn't know anything about such a redressal mechanism," said Sahai.

Besides health hazards and related socioeconomic costs to the Indian exchequer, recent media reports reveal that pests have become resistant to Bt toxin in four districts of Gujarat, thus defeating the very purpose of introduction of GM crops in the first place. Monsanto now plans to introduce another variety of Bt cotton called Bollgard 2, which will have two toxic genes instead of one to deal with more pests.

Former member of Planning Commission and former Union minister of state for agriculture and water resources, Chowdhary Sompal, said, "In the normal course of nature pests are bound to develop resistance to pesticides within three to five years of first exposure. So no matter what product Monsanto brings in, pests will soon become resistant to it." Questioning the very idea of farmers' dependency on profit-driven companies, he opposed the 'slow poisoning' caused by toxic Bt gene that gets inserted in the plant. "This inbuilt poison cannot be washed away, unlike externally sprayed pesticides," says Dr Krishen Bir Choudhary, president, Bhartiya Krishak Samaj. He criticised the MNCs for the slow disappearance of our traditional, diverse seed varieties.

Speaking about politics (and profits) of seed ownership, Vijay Jardhari of Beej Bachao Andolan, Uttarakhand, whose organisation has led protracted struggles to preserve indigenous food culture and biodiversity of the Garhwal hills, said that traditionally, Indian farmers could grow many crops that kept everyone relatively healthier since they consumed nutrition from multiple sources. But after the advent of hybrid technology, and GM crops, farmers are being forced to grow monoculture crops since that increases profits for the company. This has health consequences because those living in remote hills or in cities need doctors and medicines since they suffer from lack of basic nutrition due to all seasonal crops, which was not the case before agriculture started getting industrialised and becoming dependent on lab-made agro-inputs.

Dr Narendra Rath, faculty at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi, feels that the condition of small and marginal farmers is deplorable as "he's slowly getting coerced to buy all kinds of agricultural inputs from the market, including GM-seeds, but cannot sell back his product the same way". The local seed dealer runs the agricultural economy since he is also the creditor.

"This seed dealer gets a commission from the company on every packet of Bt seeds he sells to the farmer, but to conclude that Monsanto is 'evil' and has a calculated design to kill our farmers is incorrect, because all they want to do is increase their sales! This is the how the capitalistic system works anywhere." Most of our ministers and agricultural scientists too belong to the same neo-liberal paradigm, Rath added.

"The main problem," says KJ Mukherjee, "is that risk assessment of GM-foods is not an easy task for scientists anywhere in the world." It is particularly challenging in the Indian context because human life here has little value. So the poor and malnourished of this country will eat Bt brinjal if it's a readily available, cheap vegetable. So how can safety tests exclude them while also keeping in mind their low immunity?

Mukherjee added: "The poor are exposed to so many toxins regularly that might tend to hide negative effects of Bt toxin present in GM-brinjal. Therefore, safety tests designed for the poor of this country will need a combination of hard sciences and social sciences along with long-term health checks, which is not what our Indian scientists are currently doing, despite one of the world's best agricultural research infrastructure in the world."

Calling their research work as a metaphorical 'aam patta jam patta' (if you are doing research on mango leaves, I will do on jamun leaves), Prof Mukherjee urged Indian scientists to rise above from manufacturing profit-driven 'quickies'; instead they should generate genuinely new scientific knowledge that can be useful to millions across the spectrum. "As for what they're doing with Bt now, even a BSc student can do that!" he said.

And Rath was more cryptic: "Scientists are after all government employees. Whatever the government will tell them, they will do."

Gigantic, greedy and powerful multinational companies are using muscle and media power to push through genetically modified food products, backed by parasitic lobbies in India peddling unscientific evidence.In the wake of PM's interview to journal Science, we reproduce the old debate
Shaweta Anand Delhi

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