Michael Antoniou teaches Molecular Genetics at King’s College, London. In his spare time, he likes to help non-profits with information on the science of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Savvy Soumya Misra met him at a workshop in Delhi recently where he was vocal against GMOs. Edited excerpts
Jairam Ramesh, minister of state for environment and forests, recently said GM crop (Bt cotton) is acceptable but GM food (Bt brinjal) is not.
This is the first time I have heard somebody make this distinction. People who draw this distinction see cotton as a non-food product but they forget cotton seeds are used for oil, animals eat the stub after harvest and farmers are always in contact with cotton. There is evidence that these farmers have suffered allergic reactions; this needs an official follow-up though. Both environmental and health implications have to be taken into account.
Hazards of GMOs
Gene transformation is highly mutagenic. This leads to multi-organ toxicity affecting liver, kidney, gut, blood biochemistry and immune system. Acute signs of ageing and decreased fertility in animals fed with GM crops have also been reported.
The problem with herbicide-tolerant GM crop is it destroys not just weeds but biodiversity in general. Intense use of herbicide makes weeds resistant. In such cases, new herbicides are used—more damage to the environment, in other words. The other problem is the Bt crop, which produces the insecticide Bt toxin. Companies promote that insecticides need not be sprayed on Bt crops. This is wrong. Protection from Bt toxin in Bt crops is insufficient to fully protect them. One insect can be destroyed but another resistant to Bt toxin can then come in.
So, you face the risk of Bt toxin as well as insecticides.
Processed GM v GM crop
The argument that no adverse effects have been recorded among Americans is completely unscientific ( the US uses GM corn in its processed form such as chips, sweeteners). Animal feeding studies have been done on whole corn, not in its processed form. So, it is impossible to say if consumption of processed GM food has had any adverse impacts. Besides, consumers are not monitored. It might help to do a scrutiny of the American population in a controlled epidemiological manner.
How safe is Bt brinjal?
Bt toxin in animal studies has shown to cause allergic reactions and disrupt intestinal functions. If you cook Bt brinjal, the Bt toxin may break down and its toxicity may reduce. But the point is the main toxic effect that comes from GM food is not from the new gene but from the effects of the gene transformation process.
Recalling approved crops
Approval can be withdrawn. But if it is already in the field you are stuck with it. You can try and remove it from the food chain but this is going to be very difficult because of cross pollination between GM and non-GM crops. It will take many generations of cropping before the environment contamination level is reduced.
GM is just one aspect of biotechnology. A more powerful use would be increasing gene maps of major food crops. Once a gene marker map is in place it can be used in breeding programmes. The plants can then be crossed. Gene marker assisted selection can be used to take offspring from the cross, map their genes and identify the plants that have by chance combined all the genes required. This has been successful in India to produce a highland drought tolerant variety of rice. Because this is a non-GM procedure, there are no safety considerations and the normal gene order is not disturbed.
Gene mapping can also be done to identify genes of high yield or better nutrients.