May 3, 2009

Bt brinjal is unsafe

Bt brinjal is the first genetically modified food crop awaiting approval from the industry-backed Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). In the last few weeks you have probably read Mahyco's statement from different parts of the country claiming Bt brinjal to be safe, and that the approval will come through by the end of this year.

How safe is Bt brinjal? After all, the Bt gene from the soil bacteria that has been inserted into brinjal produces a toxin. What will happen after the Bt brinjal has been harvested? Will the toxin be still in the fruit? If yes, than will it impact the human body? Will it lead to slow poisoning of the human body?

Addressing this crucial issue, I had written sometime back : Don't just take my word for it. Listen instead to Professor Dave Schubert of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California: "The Bt toxin is 1000 times more concentrated than in Bt sprays, which do not themselves have a history of safe use." In simple words, what Dr Schubert says is that genetically modified Bt plants, and that includes Bt Brinjal, carry a toxin that is a thousand times more potent than what is used to kill insects. Strains of Bt have been used as sprays to control harmful insects.

I haven't yet received any response from the agricultural scientific community. I wonder if they even know of this toxicity study. They only read the pro-GM technology claims, and then become cheerleaders for a risky and unproven technology. And you will see they mock at every study which poses critical questions about the GM technology. That is why GM companies do not invest significantly on maintaining public relations team. With agricultural scientists doing the job free for them, why should they spend on PROs?

Anyway, I posed this question about toxicity to Dr Pushpa Bhargava. Since he has been nominated by the Supreme Court to GEAC, he has been following the recent developments much more carefully and meticulously than all of us. He told me that as per the data presented by Mahyco, the company that is developing Bt brinjal, no tests for 'acute toxicity' have been done. He said that what he is asking for is that tests for 'acute toxicity' to be done with native genes and not with surrogate genes.

Interestingly, he says that when the GEAC was examining the Mayhco's data on toxicity, it emerged from their report that if Bt brinjal is cooked for 5 to 10 minutes, there is no bt protein. "But non-Bt brinjal cooked for 5-10 minutes, is positive for Bt protein." To this, Rajni Warrior, the member secretary of GEAC's reply was that it was a typo mistake.

I wonder how many other typo mistakes are in that document!

According to Dr Bhargava, the fact remains that adequate toxicity tests have not been conducted. The GEAC is merely going by what the company is saying.

I am shocked at the casual manner in which the GEAC is treating the toxicity aspect of Bt brinjal. How can they be so indifferent when it comes to human health? Even college students would be more careful in presenting toxicity data in their research papers than what Mahyco has been allowed to do. But with GEAC, which as I have time again said is a rubber stamp for the biotech industry, obviously the company has nothing to fear.

Please tell me where in India do we cook vegetables with a thermometer in hand? How will we know whether we conform to the cooking temperature to get rid of the toxin? What about the use of raw Bt brinjal in ayurvedic preparations, and also what happens when cows on the street eat Bt brinjal from the public dumps? What will happen when birds like crows for instance feed on brinjals rotting in the garbage dumps?

So far we were told to wash brinjals carefully to get rid of the pesticides toxins. Isn't it true that with Bt brinjal, even if you were to wash the toxins, it will not go away. The toxin is within the brinjal.

And still worse, do we even know how much toxin the Bt gene produces in the brinjal? Dr Bhargava says that the company hasn't spelled this out. Nor has the GEAC asked the company to provide data on all aspects of toxicity. Given this, I am sure you will agree that we need to demand capital punishment for the chairman of the GEAC if any approval granted in his tenure results in health damages. After all, we must hold GEAC accountable for its acts of omission and commission. We can't be treated as guinea pigs any more.

As Dr Bhargava told a recent workshop on GM crops at the Kerala Agriculture University, Thrissur, that the GEAC has also been telling lies. He cited several instances where GEAC had simply lied, including its claim that it had provided an opportunity to NGOs to present their view/analysis on the controversy surrounding the death of thousands of sheep and goat in Andhra Pradesh. Besides AP, animal deaths have also been reported subsequently from Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana.

He said that there is an urgent need to get 29 biosafety tests done before any GM crop is released into the environment. So far only 4 tests are being done, and even these are not being conducted efficiently and in a scientfic manner. All these tests are being performed by the companies, and the GEAC accepts the data provided by the companies. What will shock you to know that at Thrissur many senior agricultural scientists actually said that there is no need for such elaborate safety trials. They were happy with the present testing protocols, and wanted the approval for large-scale field trials to come in quickly.

To this, Usha from Thanal made a very interesting intervention. She said that if GM crops are safe and do not need all these tests than why doesn't the agricultural university ask India to withdraw from the Cartagena Protocol commitments on biosafety? I wonder if many of the professors of plant breeding have actually heard of Cartagena Protocol in the first place? If they didn't know what IAASTD stands for, it is futile to expect them to know what Cartagena Protocol is.

Well, all I can suggest is that if you feel concerned about your health, and the health of the nation, don't rely on the claims made by the GM companies, the GEAC and the agricultural universities. They are simply misguiding you, creating confusion in the minds of the public, and are more concerned about their bank receipts when the GEAC gives it a thumbs up for commercial cultivation. What happens to your health is not their concern, it never was.

PS: If you haven't yet watched Mahesh Bhatt's Poison on the Platter, I suggest you do it now before it gets too late. You can scroll down this blog, and click on the video link provided.


Anonymous said...

It is the same answer that Monsanto profferred about rBGH, saying that even if it did appear in the cow's milk it would be destroyed by pasteurization and also in the stomach of people by virtue of the inherent gastric acid. Not an answer that I accepted in Canada and which was why rBGH was ultimately not approved in this country.

Shiv Chopra

Anonymous said...

well articulated article. i can only say,


khushal lali

foodchoices said...

Thank you for this post.Can it be circulated with a link to your blog? I thought Kerala was a GM free state. Has the Kerala Agricultural University approved of GM field trials?

foodchoices said...

Thank you for this post.May I circulate it with a link to your blog? I was under the impression that Kerala is a GM free state. Is the Kerala Agricultural University conducting field trials of GM crops?

Anonymous said...

just read your post. how do we know that anything we eat is safe anymore? even on washing dhal or rice the water gets coloured which is a clear indication that colour has been added to enhance its appearance.

Raghu Menon said...

Also what is the impact of this 1000 times stronger BT on the soil biodiversity, bacteria, macro fauna like earthworms, termites etc.? If soil biodiversity gets affected, it is going to definitely affect the above ground biodiversity - leave alone the danger of cross pollination from BT crops to non BT crops.