Jan 20, 2010

While people say No to Bt Brinjal; ministers and officials begin to sing 'Bt is safe' chorus

The Gujarat baloon has been punctured.

I have heard time and again that Gujarat had a wonderful experience with Bt cotton and therefore would throw a red carpet for Bt brinjal. I have always thought that farmers preference for Bt cotton was actually at the behest of a favourable weather that we witnessed for the past four to five years. Cotton yields, whether of Bt variety or non-Bt, were high across the spectrum because the weather was not conducive to the growth of the dreaded bollworm pest.

Nevertheless, we will talk about it later. But first let us see what transpired at the 3rd National Consultation on Bt brinjal held at Ahmedabad on Jan 19. Contrary to all expectations (of the seed industry), Ahmedabad turned out in big numbers and said a loud NO to Bt brinjal. I am told close to 74 per cent of the people who were given a chance to voice their opinion, said No to Bt brinjal.

Interestingly, the honeymoon with farmers is also getting over. A majority of the farmers were against Bt brinjal. Eighteen farmers oppposed Bt brinjal, where as 12 said they favoured the technology.

You can read about the Ahmedabad event in this report from the edition of the Ahmedabad Mirror titled: No Bt-ing around the bush, please http://www.ahmedabadmirror.com/article/3/20100120201001200225271132130546/No-Bting-around-the-bush-please.html

So, in all the three National Consultations so far -- held at Kolkata, Bhubaneshwar and Ahmedabad -- people have expressed their opposition to the harmful technology.

Knowing that the people have rejected the technology, the GM industry is now shifting the focus to the class of people with whom they hobnob and obviously are more comfortable with. Yes, you guessed it right. These are the ministers and the bureaucrats, who seem to have launched an orchestrated campaign vouching for the safety of Bt brinjal.

I am surprised at the statement of the Science & Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan. He was quoted in The Hindu in a New Delhi dateline report (Jan 18): Even as the debate over the release of Bt Brinjal for commercial cultivation continues unabated, Union Science and Technology Minister, Prithviraj Chavan on Tuesday asserted that the genetically modified variety of the popular vegetable was ``safe’’.

``We stand by the results of the trials done by the regulatory bodies. It is safe for all’’, he said, replying to a volley of questions over the controversy at an interaction with journalists here.

This is in clear contradication to what his colleague, Minister for Environment & Forests Jairam Ramesh, has to say about the safety aspect of Bt brinjal. A report published in Indian Express, datelined Ahmedabad (Jan 20), states: Admitting that all the environmental and bio-safety tests on Bt Brinjal in the country were done at private laboratories, Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh said here on Tuesday that he had taken up the issue of setting up a full-fledged laboratory with the Centre.

How can Mr Chavan "stand by" the results of the trial done by the regulatory body (read GEAC), when these trials have actually been done in private labs.

The others to join the safety chorus are the Secretary of Department of Biotechnology, M K Bhan; and Samir Brahamchari, Director General of the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR). While I can understand the compulsions of Mr Bhan, whose mandate is to promote GM crops/research, why has the CSIR DG stood up in favour of the GM technology, I fail to comprehend. It only tells us about the reach of the private GM companies, and the power they yield.

I think Mr Brahamchari should spend time to resurrect his own organisation, which I understand has reached probably its lowest ebb in recent years. CSIR has failed to bring science and technology to the benefit of rural India. It needs to focus on developing simple, cheap and appropriate technology for rural population rather than spend time and money replicating what the private industry is doing in biotechnology.

A news report quotes both of them, and I share the relevant portions with you:

Thirty best scientists have cleared it and we stand by it. I am a health professional and let me tell that BT Brinjal is absolutely safe for all mammals,” said M.K. Bhan, secretary in the department biotechnology.

“It’s safe for the human body and it’s safer technology,” Bhan added.

This is the first time a ministry has openly supported the genetically modified product despite protests across the country.

“I don’t know whether people will like the taste or not but it is safe for all humans. Let me also say that adopting this technology will help thousands of farmers,” said Samir Bramhachari, chief of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the apex body of government-run research institutions.

The full report can be seen at : http://blog.taragana.com/health/2010/01/19/bt-brinjal-safe-for-humans-says-science-ministry-18435/

Needless to say, both the statements are factually wrong. And it is primarily for this reason that I have been demanding accountability in science. We must realise that scientists are no longer holy cows. They are easily influenced, and have made several faulty recommendations in the past. It is the common people who are left to suffer.

We cannot allow this anymore. Each human life is precious. The time has come when we need to bring in stiff provisions ensuring accountability in science.

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