TO B(t) OR NOT TO B(t)
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. Will Jairam Ramesh succumb to this profit cartel?
Shaweta Anand Delhi
Those opposed to GM-food may be happy to see how Union Environment Minister Jairam 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 (in the US) 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 transnational 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 says, „US had offered GM-corn to Zambia in the past, which they 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 it. So Zambians chose to protect their own export market outside 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 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 (KIA) 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 Kavitha Kuruganti of the Kheti Virasat Mission.
„All this talk about the launching of a second green revolution is just a red herring. This deal is essentially about changing Indian regulatory regimes around agriculture so that it suits the American business interests better. Fundamental questions about what is it that we really need to learn from the USA where farming is propped up with huge subsidies; whether there are similarities between American and Indian farming so that we need to learn from them; aren’t there huge differences between the way USA and India approach specific issues within agriculture and so on have to be answered first? In fact, the government needs to first state what lessons have been learnt from the first green revolution, before launching a second green revolution,” informed Kuruganti, in an interview 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 continues to chase the Bt gene,” says Dr Suman Sahai, senior scientist and convenor, 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.
„Public doesn’t know what GM technology is, so there is limited point in debating the good or bad of it, for instance, at the public consultations (before Ramesh announced moratorium on Bt brinjal),” says Prof KC Bansal, principal scientist, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, ICAR.
„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,” says Prof KJ Mukherjee of the Centre of Biotechnology, JNU.
Sahai noted that if farmers were asked, they could have probably suggested more uses of biotechnology in our country, but alas, our scientists are busy preparing Bt okra, 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 a license fees every time there is a sale of any Bt product anywhere in the world.
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, she adds. 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 GM-food products for assessing their health impact on human beings is one major problem. There are no working 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 GM-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 says, „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.
Apparently, Monsanto claims that it’s Mahyco which is involved, when controversy hits it. Incidentally, Monsanto has 26 per cent stake in Mahyco.
Among studies quoted in the doctors’ 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 weaning 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. She 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 1.15 million Indians would be ill and requiring treatment.”
In an exclusive interview with Hardnews, she says: „What happens is that studies conducted by GM companies generally involve very few animals and generally measure things relevant to animal production (eg. meat yield) rather than human health. We need thorough, long-term animal feeding studies that measure things relevant to human health, conducted by people independent of GM companies. But independent researchers have serious problems getting samples of GM-crops for research. For instance, a farmer who buys GM-crops from Monsanto signs a contract with Monsanto that prevents the farmer from doing any research or giving seeds to others to do it. This includes any crop yield, environmental or health research. And GM crops have a strong patent on them. If a GM gene lands in a farmer’s crop, it belongs to the GM company. So farmers can find themselves growing GM- contaminated crops without choosing to, because bees have carried GM- containing pollen into their crop, or because the farmer has unknowingly bought contaminated seeds. And then the farmer can be fined by the GM company for growing a GM crop without a licence to do so. This has happened to farmers in other countries.”
Emphasising the necessity of long-term testing, Sahai says, „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 allergenicity to check for formation of new proteins.”
Further, Bhargava asserts, „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,” says 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, says, „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, says 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 the non-availability of all seasonal crops. This was not the case before agriculture started getting industrialised and becoming dependent on lab-made agro-inputs.
Dr Satyajit 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 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 malnourished majority will also eat (Bt) brinjal because it is a cheap, readily available vegetable. So how can safety tests exclude this aspect, especially keeping in mind their low immunity?
„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,” he added.
Calling their research work as a metaphorical ‚aam patta jam patta’ (if someone has done research on mango leaves, repeat the same with 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 says.
And Rath was more cryptic: „Scientists are after all government employees. Whatever the government will tell them, they will do.”