It’s just a vegetable, a variant of the humble brinjal all of us know so well, but it’s creating great outrage, great expectations and great apprehension. This is Bt brinjal, a hybrid mothered by the agribusiness giant Monsanto, and it is on the verge of becoming the first genetically modified food crop to be introduced into India. Its promoters obviously feel a successful start will create conditions for many more corporate-owned hybrids. Its opponents fear the consequences, both long-term and short-term.
In simple terms, Bt brinjal is different in that it carries a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. It is supposed to protect the plant from a variety of insect infestations. But the full consequences of ingesting the hybrid are unknown and untested, according to its opponents.
One of the more articulate opponents is filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt who took a sabbatical from the silver screen to make Poison on the Platter with director Ajay Kanchan to address the issue of GM foods in general. It’s awaiting approval for release, but it’s in time because Bt Brinjal — or Franken food as these things are called — is also due to be released shortly.
But Bhatt, an outspoken Mumbaikar, is neither the only nor the most formidable opponent of GM foods. For instance, the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) in France has submitted to India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) that Bt brinjal’s release into the environment for food and feed in India may present a serious risk for human and animal health. It has said Bt Brinjal’s commercial release should be forbidden.
The hybrid has been developed by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company), the India arm of Monsanto. A Mahyco spokesperson had this to say: “Bt brinjal is identical to brinjal in every respect, except for the additional Bt protein, targeted only against the Fruit and Shoot Borer, which is the most destructive insect pest for brinjal.”
In January, Mahyco submitted the test results of Bt brinjal to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the clearing house for all GM crops in India. Generally, the regulatory body would have passed a decision by now. But it has been delayed thus far because its opponents got hold of Mahyco’s test results by filing an RTI (Right to Information).
GEAC’s sub-committee is likely to examine two scientific analyses and Mahyco’s response. “The first report, by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a CRIIGEN biochemist found that Mahyco had left out statistically significant differences between GM and control groups in its report to the GEAC,” says Sangita Sharma, a farmer and state coordinator for the My Right to Safe Food campaign. Seralini’s analysis says Bt brinjal produces a protein that could induce resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin, which could be a major health problem. This analysis was commissioned by Greenpeace.
The other report reviewed Mahyco’s food safety evaluation of Bt brinjal. Judy Carmen, director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research, a non-profit body working on genetically modified organisms found errors in Mahyco’s research methodology. “Carmen said Mahyco had not assessed the likelihood of a change in the genetic expression of the plant after the insertion of a gene and that no tests were conducted
to determine whether the modified genes could degrade upon cooking or it was digestible,” says Sharma.
Genetically modified food brings along a trail of safety concerns. For its part, Bangalore played host to the first-ever Brinjal Fest last month to caution consumers about the hazards of Bt brinjal. “Mahyco’s data give no clue on chronic impact or what happens if it’s consumed in small doses. It’s unsafe for human consumption, animal feed and the environment,” says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, a countrywide network of farmers’ unions, environmental organisations, women’s groups, organic farming groups and consumer groups.
“Bt brinjal will erode our productive resources and will impact brinjal farmers badly. It will increase fertiliser consumption. Pests, especially sucking pests will transmit disease from plant to plant. Seed consumption is higher and demand for irrigation will also increase,” she adds.
Mahyco’s insists that Bt brinjal is as safe as can be. “Bt brinjal has been in development for nine years and has been tested on every count to ensure it is safe for human consumption. It is the most rigorously tested vegetable with 25 environmental biosafety studies supervised by independent and government agencies. It has been tested on fish, chicken, rabbits, goats, rats and buffaloes. Results show it’s not toxic to any of them, as the Bt gene has no effect on humans or animals because its effects are specific to the insect gut,” its spokesperson says.
What if a consumer doesn’t want the GM brinjal, but the unmodified aubergine? Can he tell between the two? The two look the same, unfortunately. In other ways too, people seem to know very little about GM foods. Last August, a survey of 500 people in Hyderabad showed only 8.3 per cent of them knew about GM crops.
If Bt brinjal does measure up to GEAC expectations, it may be the world’s first GM food crop. So far, crops like GM corn and soybean have been cleared only for animal feed in the US. “Indians are the first guinea pigs for Bt brinjal. Even if it enters the market, there needs to be a Labelling and Liability Law for the consumer and farmer to make their choice. But product approval shouldn’t depend on labelling,” says R Jai Krishna of Greenpeace, the international NGO.