Monday, October 19, 2009

Brief analysis of Expert Committee - II report submitted to GEAC

Monday, October 19, 2009
Bt brinjal -- India's first poisonous food crop by Devinder Sharma

I am not the least surprised. Knowing that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is merely a rubber stamp for the biotech industry, the environmental approval to India's first genetically modified food crop -- Bt brinjal -- is no surprise. You couldn't have expected anything better from a bunch of stupid bureaucrats and scientists/officials masquerading as regulators. I am sure Michael Moore, if he had followed the ways of GEAC, would have already penned down a sequel to his The Stupid White Men.

India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh therefore has a monumental task on his hands. He has to appreciate the role of the GEAC (which falls under his ministry) even knowing they have done a shoddy job, and at the same time seek the help of the public at large before taking the final decision pertaining to the commercial release of India's first poisonous food crop. Not a simple task, and I know the tight-rope walking Jairam Ramesh will have to do in the days to come.

His task becomes more difficult when one learns that within days of the GEAC giving its nod, the seed company seeking the approval -- Mahyco -- had already made a presentation to the Prime Minister Office. And let us not forget, Jairam Ramesh's senior colleague and the sugar baron, the Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is already known to have thrown his weight (and we all know how heavy he is ) behind GM crops.

In fact, I sympathise with the chairman of the Expert Committee-II (called EC-II), Dr Arjula R Reddy, who is also the vice-chancellor of the Yogi Yemana University in Hyderabad, to have worked under such difficult conditions. If I were in his place I would have tendered my resignation rather than stamp a report which is clearly the handiwork of USAID and Mahyco. Knowing the incompetence of the members of the EC-II (and I tried to talk to several of their colleagues before saying this) I doubt if they could ever write such a clean copy. Ask them to write two pages, and you will get to known what I mean.

About USAID, the little said the better. I have always referred to it as: US Artificial Insemination Department. And if you have ever been to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh city, you will understand what I mean.

Nevertheless, coming back to the report of the EC-II, it is a complete sham. There is no other word to describe it. I wonder how could the so-called scientists on the panel be so stupid. I can understand the vested interest of the Cornell University scientists, but how come our own breed of scientists be so idiotic? Isn't it a reflection on the kind of people who dominate the corridors of scientific research in the country? This of course holds true for the advisors in the Department of Biotechnology, but I always thought that at least some scientists working in the ICAR and ICMR system would still be engaged in good science. Perhaps that category of scientists has already been marginalised.

This itself is a dangerous trend, too threatening for the future generations. It wouldn't therefore be unfair to say that Indian science is literally in a pit. Only Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh Sauchalaya can pull it out.

Now let us look at some of the conclusions arrived at by the EC-II. On page 2 of the report entitled: Report of the Expert Committee (EC-II) on Bt brinjal EE-1 developed by: M/S Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company Ltd. (Mahyco), Mumbai; University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad; and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore (this report is available on the website of the Ministry of Environment and Forests), it states the following:

"Based on the recommendations of the EC-1, the GEAC in its 79th meeting held on Aug 8, 2007, permitted the conduct of large scale trials (LST) of By brinjal for two season under the direct supervision of Director, Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR), Varanasi to conduct some additional biosafety related studies by M/S Mahyco. the field trials were subjected to compliance of the following conditions:

1. Maintaining an isolation distance of 300 metres.
2. Submission of validated event specific test protocol at limit of detection (LOD) of at least 0.01 per cent to detect and confirm there has been no contamination.
3. Designated a lead scientist who would be responsible for all aspects of the trials including regulatory requirements."

This is what is called as clear manipulation of the scientific norms. You first lay out conditions that are suitable for you to arrive at the conclusion you are aiming at, and then you make the recommendation based on the flawed parameters laid out. In the research trials at IIVR, the isolation distance between crop fields is kept at 300 metres (because you don't want the contamination to exceed the LOD of 0.01 per cent). Mahyco therefore got the result it was looking for.

But please tell me where in the country can you conform that Bt brinjal is grown with an isolation distance of 300 metres? Shouldn't the IIVR have known this? If not (and we all know that maintaining an isolation distance of 300 metres at the farm level is practically impossible) than the entire scientific experiment began on a faulty premise. The correct experiment should have been to measure the gene flow on adjoining crop fields of brinjal. That would have given us the correct picture. The experiment therefore was designed wrongly to yield the right results.

This is not the only flaw. I can point a number of glaring flaws in the way the experiments were conducted. Only stupid scientists could have endorsed these results.

Now move to the annextures. From page 66 onwards, the EC-II has responded to the issues raised by NGOs, National and International Groups on Bt brinjal biosafety studies. This is a very interesting section, and all you can say is how ashamed you are if this is the scholarship of so called distinguished scientists/officials on the panel. Take the response to the studies conducted by Prof G Seralini, University of Cannes, France. The response of the EC-II generally is: The EC-II is of the view that no additional information regarding toxicity and allergenicity needs to be generated.

Again it uses the same stupid arguement: Cry1AC protein has a history of safe use for human and animal consumption as GM crops such as Bt maize and Bt potato containing Cry proteins including Cry1AC protein have been consumed by millions of people without any adverse effects. [Each of the responses is simply a cover up. I will take that up subsequently]

I thought the EC-II was a research panel. Instead it has produced the relevant literature to justify its position while ignoring a plethora of scientific research that questions the claims. In any case, the EC-II should have conducted more research to address the issues and concerns raised rather than simply brushing them aside. Let us not forget, history is replete with examples where what was approved as safe by scientists had eventually turned out to be killer. The Orange Gas used by Monsanto in the Vietnam war is a class example. Even now, thousands of people are dying from the residual impact of the gas, which was once considered to be safe. DDT is another example.

Coming to food, we have numerous such examples. Trans fatty acids were once considered to be safe and of course essential for the processing industry. Today, several US States have banned the use of transfats. In fact, food has now become the biggest killer in the United States. More than 400,000 people die from food related ailments, including obesity, every year in the US alone.

Further, I want to ask the chairman of the EC-II a simple question. If I eat Bt brinjal, which you consider as absolutely safe, and I fall ill, is there any way I (or my doctor) can find out whether it was from the alien gene in the brinjal I ate? Do you have any medical assay anywhere in the world which can even pinpoint an ailment or a disease to an alien gene in the GM foods? What will happen Dr Reddy if your wife or children get seriously ill from eating Bt brinjal and your hospital treatment is unable to detect the real cause?

The answer is simple. It is because you allowed premature approvals for poisonous GM crops and foods, without asking the companies to first hold human clinical trials. My sympathy for you surely disappears. Scientists like you should be held responsible, and I think the time has come to make provisions for stringent possible punishment for the approval committees (inlcuding GEAC) if anything goes wrong. Scientists cannot be allowed to play with human lives, animals and the environment.

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