Hamara Beej

Friday, December 4, 2009

Raw deal

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To eat or not to eat Bt brinjal, that's the question?
By Soni Mishra

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) took just an hour to pass a 102-page report giving the go-ahead to Bt brinjal. The report had been drafted in just two meetings, by an expert committee set up by the GEAC. These are two of several points raised by biologist P.M. Bhargava, a Supreme Court-appointed member of GEAC, raising serious doubts over the manner in which Bt brinjal was cleared for environmental release.
“The GEAC met on October 14 and passed the report within one hour. How is it possible to clear such a voluminous report in an hour? I feel it was all pre-planned. It is unfair, unethical and improper,” said Bhargava, the former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. The only member of the committee to oppose the decision, Bhargava claimed that GEAC members were given very little time to go through the report. “I proposed that a month’s time should be given to us to analyse it, and people from Monsanto and the other stakeholders should be called to discuss it thoroughly,” he said. 
Bhargava claimed that the expert committee held only two meetings before coming up with the report. “How is that possible? This would lead one to conclude that the report was already prepared by someone else,” he said. He also said the report was a bad scientific document and would not pass muster in any scientific organisation anywhere in the world. The need for a foolproof and fair system for giving clearance to GM crops is being emphasised, especially since many more GM food crops are in the pipeline. According to sources in the environment ministry, as many as 56 GM crops, 41 of them food crops, are in different stages of trials. Bt brinjal, developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), the Indian partner of multinational seed company Monsanto, could be the first GM food crop to be introduced in India. It has been genetically modified to include the bacterial gene Bacillus thuringiensis—the same as in Bt cotton—that makes it pest-resistant.
Farmers’ rights activist Kavitha Kuruganti has questioned the clearance mechanism, saying the expert committee, its terms of reference and processes are all fraught with problems. “Two of the members of the expert committee were earlier involved in studies for Mahyco. So they were assessing their own findings, which is completely unfair,” she said.
Another contention is that the data for the report on Bt brinjal was provided by the company itself. “The biosafety tests that generated the data that was provided to the expert committee were conducted by the company,” said Kushal Pal Singh Yadav of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. “This would obviously give rise to questions. The tests ought to have been conducted by an independent body.”
The government defends the clearance set-up. “The GEAC comprises 25 highly respected experts,” said Dr M.K. Bhan, secretary, department of biotechnology, ministry of science and technology. “They went through all data and conducted a detailed examination of the information at hand. If they were not satisfied with something, they asked the tests to be repeated. The GEAC cannot be expected to look at philosophical and political issues. It will only look into the scientific issue of whether there is any evidence that Bt brinjal poses any risks. We get the best people on the committee and we cannot subject them to mistrust and suspicion.” 
Using data from the company was the norm even in the field of pharmaceuticals, said Bhan. The clearance mechanism was so strict that many companies complain that it is easier for them to deal with the US Food and Drug Administration, he added.
Many believe that India is not prepared for GM crops as the country does not have strict provisions for labelling. “There is need for exercising caution while introducing Bt brinjal as it is an edible crop. At present, we do not have any labelling mechanism in place for GM food crops, so the consumer cannot make a choice,” said Yadav.

The expert committee found Bt brinjal safe for environmental release and human consumption; no additional studies or review are required, said the report. According to Mahyco, Bt brinjal would help millions of farmers who have been suffering crop damage caused by the pest brinjal fruit and shoot borer (BFSB). Bt brinjal has been in development for the last nine years. After a series of tests and trials, including 25 environmental biosafety studies, it was cleared by the GEAC, set up by the government. Those opposing Bt brinjal say it could do irreparable damage to health. Critics of GM food crops also cite the absence of a regulatory framework to protect consumer interests.
A study by French scientist Prof. G. Serilini of the University of Cannes has questioned the test results provided by Mahyco to the expert committee, saying the data is questionable with regard to toxicity. The study says it could lead to resistance to antibiotics. Former health minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, cautioning against the introduction of Bt brinjal, saying GM foods are known to cause various health effects like allergies and kidney and liver damage and can affect the immune system.
Experts want the government to pay heed to alternative methods of pest management without pesticides. “Very few countries have gone in for GM crops. Worldwide, only 2.5 per cent of the total arable land is being used to grow GM crops. More than 95 per cent of such crops are grown in the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. Instead of opting for GM crops, we should look at pesticide-free methods that have been developed in our country,” said Jai Krishna of Greenpeace.
According to Mahyco, Bt brinjal has been tested in full compliance with the guidelines and directives of the regulatory authorities to ensure its safety. “It is the most rigorously tested vegetable with 25 environmental biosafety studies supervised by independent and government agencies,” said Raju Barwale, managing director. Bt brinjal has the same nutritional value, he added, and is compositionally identical to non-Bt brinjal, except for the additional Bt protein that is specific in its action against the pest.
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, in the wake of the controversy over Bt brinjal, has decided to hold a public debate on the issue before a final decision is taken. “Strong views have already been expressed on the Bt brinjal issue, both for and against,” he said. “My objective is to arrive at a careful, considered decision in the public and national interest. The decision will be made only after the consultation process is complete and all stakeholders are satisfied that they have been heard to their satisfaction.”

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