Nov 21, 2009

Q & A about the relevance of Bt brinjal and the regulatory regime

The debate over the environmental clearance for Bt brinjal in India is hotting up. There is a tremendous uproar against the technology that is visible, provided  of course you want to see it. Many State governments have woken up, and opposed the introduction of Bt brinjal crop. West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala are some of them. In the days to come, I am sure more State governments will oppose the technology.

It gives a clear pointer. At least the politicians are much better than the agricultural scientists. Vice-Chancellors of agricultural universities are completely on the bandwagon of the GM industry. None of them can muster courage to stand up and be counted. In a vitiated academic atmosphere where even the post of an Assistant Professor comes with a price tag (not everywhere, but most of the universities have earned quite a name for 'money-for-job' rackets operating for quite some time), you cannot expect anything better from these universities. 

At the same time, the media is deliberately trying to downplay the resistance to GM foods, especially Bt brinjal. As I have said earlier, they are counting their chicken, which comes in the form of advertisements from these biotech and agribusiness companies. There are some exceptions, of course. At times, I do receive a set of questions to be answered. But I must acknowledge this is only a miniscule section of the journalists who appear keen to balance their story. The rest look for an opportunity to travel to the US for an exposure trip/orientation course in genetic engineering, and to qualify for that they are eager to show their writing skills and also 'understanding' about the technology.

Anyway, one such set of questions along with my answers is placed below.  

Q: A Mahyco representative said that during the testing phase in which environmental biosafety and agronomic evaluation of Bt brinjal was carried out, an isolation distance of 300 metres was maintained as mandated by the regulators. And that this applies to the evaluation phase only.

Ans: The isolation distance between two plots is to ascertain how much is the gene flow from a Bt brinjal field to a neighbouring brinjal field. In India, the vegetable fields are back to back. The testing parameter should have actually laid out the experiment to evaluate the gene flow when fields are at a distance of one feet or so. In fact, there should be three different distances -- can be one feet, one meter and three meters. By just setting a standard (even if it is only for evaluation phase) for three metres the scientists have actually ensured they get the desired results. So, as I said in my blog, this is simply to make fool of the people who do not understand what the isolation distance means. If the isolation distance was, say one metre, the experiment would have failed.

Q: GM crops in India is a realty, regardless of the oppositions and reservations. Beginning from that premise, what kind of a regulatory system would satisfy you? As in, what strikes you as the obvious loopholes in the current trials and how can they be fixed?

Ans: First, I do not agree with your premise. Nuclear reactors were a reality 50 years back, and look what is happening now. All over the west the love-affair with nuclear reactors has disappeared. It is only in India that we are willing to accept even shit from the western countries. Some years back, I had exposed a plan to export cow dung and piggery droppings from Holland to India. It was dropped after people reacted and showed their anger following the exposure.

The present regulatory system is a complete sham. It has been designed by the pro-industry scientists (who are the beneficiary of the GM technology) for the industry. There is a need for 29 tests to be done before a GM food crop is allowed. In India, we conduct hardly 4 tests and that too just to satisfy the ignorant media. For instance, I don't understand how could health risks be ascertained after 90 days tests. It should be for a lifetime. At least, for the lifetime of a rat, which is 2 years.

Interestingly, GM foods are for the masses. GM drugs, which are for a a target population there are several stages of trials and even that is not foolproof. Why can't we follow at least the same regulatory mechanism for GM foods? We do not need the FDA kind of regulation for GM foods. We actually need RDA regulatory system that exists for genetically modified drugs in the US. Under the RDA, you are supposed to tell the regulators the negative impacts of the drug. This is exactly what we need to do in the case of GM foods.

And also, there is a dire need to bring in a clause for accountability. The Chairman of GEAC should be put behind bars if anything goes wrong. In fact, the former chairman and members of the GEAC should be already behind bars for the damage done to cotton farmers through the introduction of Bt cotton. Thousands of cotton farmers who grew Bt cotton in Vidharba for instance have been forced to commit suicide. Scientists have blood on their hands.

The EC-II report for instance says that the health risks from Mahyco's own feeding studies are 'statistical significant' but 'biologically insignificant'. How can this be possible? Who will questions the fraudulent cover-up provided by EC-II? Why can't the report be publicly discussed, why can't a team of respectable citizens from all walks of life, look into the claims? After all, GM food is not being consumed by scientists and company officials, it is to be eaten by the masses. So why shouldn't they decide? And if the EC-II report is proved to be fraudulent, shouldn't the members of the committee be punished, and that too in a manner that it becomes a deterrent for others?  

Q: According to IFPRI, Washington DC, the regulatory process in India involves not only environmental risk assessment but also food safety assessment. India is known to be the country with a that has the largest biosafety requirements in terms of animal feeding tests. Do you agree?

Ans: Please don't hold IFPRI in such high esteem. It is a an industry think-tank and if you have read my views, I have been demanding closure of IFPRI. Just to give you an instance. The FAO is calling the land-grab by companies in Africa, Latin America and Asia as 'neo-colonism'. IFPRI is calling for a code of conduct. So you should know who IFPRI represents. I have known their present/past DGs (and I have shared the platform with some of them). They openly speak the language of biotech industry.

If India's regulatory system is so good, I think the US should close down FDA and look at the tests being done in India. If this was true, they wouldn't have opened several offices of FDA in India.

The way environmental clearance has been given to Bt brinjal, it only shows the scandalous manner in which the GEAC and the RCGM operates. Let me tell you, the Ministry of Environment & Forests has no courage to set the GEAC in order. The Department of Biotechnology on the other hand is stuffed with people (most of them are advisors) whose only qualification for the job is their proximity to the biotech companies.  

Q: What are the implications of the 2006 CD Mayee report, that paved way for event based testing? Could you, once again, elaborate the pros and cons of an event-based regime for the mainstream audience?

Ans: This is again flawed. Many a times we have seen that the same event or the gene can act differently in different crops. MON810 corn variety which stands banned in most of Europe is one such classic example. If you were to go by the event-based regime than MON810 corn should not have posed any problems. Each transgenic therefore needs a fresh round of biosafety studies. Moreover, when you appoint a team under someone like C D Mayee, you know the outcome even before the report is submitted. Why can't we have a team let us say headed by someone who has no stake in the technology.

Q: Mayee quit GEAC following his appointment to ISAAA board. Just what kind of an organisation is ISAA ---the organisation counts among its donors, not just Monsanto, but also our ministry of science and environment. ..

Ans: ISAAA is an industry outfit. They call themselves NGO, but are in reality funded by the GM industry, and has allies like the Ministry of Science & Environment. Interestingly, the Dept of Biotechnology and ICAR always swear by the reports/studies of ISAAA and at the same time talk of taking all stake-holders views/opinions into account. I have often challenged the DBT Advisors to please tel who they represent if all their slides in presentations are by and large based on ISAAA.

ICAR is much worse. You canot become the director of any ICAR institute till you demonstrate your blind support for GM technology. CD Mayee has already managed to put a biotech industry person as a deputy director general.  Even the next Director General of ICAR will be a biotech supporter (and maybe a GM practitioner himself). I can even name him now before the selection committee provides us the name.  

Don't forget, CD Mayee did not quit GEAC on his own. He was forced to quit GEAC following pressure from NGOs.  In addition to continuing on GEAC and ISAAA board, he was also chairperson of the agriculture scientists recruitment board.  It is here that his role has to be examined. he has recruited many scientists to the top slots in ICAR who are known to be GM supporters/beneficiaries and there are question marks over their merit and credibility. #

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