BT BRINJAL: AN ACTIVIST DESIGNED IMBROGLIO
C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
1. THE BACKGROUND
On October 15, 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved Bt brinjal for commercialization, considering it safe for human consumption and ready to be made available to farmers, basing on protracted product and biosecurity evaluation and its review by two Expert Committees (2007, 2009).
The activist groups who have been working hard for a ban on not just Bt brinjal but all genetically engineered (GE) crops in India slipped into a tizzy and demanded that the Minister for Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, should reject GEAC’s approval. They seem to have arranged for over ‘40,000 e-mails and letters’ to the MoEF opposing the approval of Bt brinjal, which the MoEF said ‘amounted to blackmailing’ (The Hindu, October, 15, 2009).
The MoEF issued a Press Statement on October 15, 2009, stating that a) Comments are sought, by December 31, 2009, on the Expert Committee report placed on the Ministry’s website (www.moef.gov.in), b) during January-February 2010 he would have a series of consultations with in different places with scientists, agriculture experts, farmers’ organizations, consumer groups and NGOs representing all points of view, and c) the decision will be made only after the consultation process was complete and all stakeholders are satisfied that they have been heard (October 15, 2009) (http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Press_Bt%20Brinjal.pdf). The public response should be communicated to the MoEF as per the information provided towards the end of this brief.
The MoEF’s decision is surprising and seems pointless for several reasons:
a) In India, Bt brinjal passed through extensive agronomic and biosecurity evaluation as per the mandatory provisions of the Indian Regulatory regime, during 2000-09 involving about 200 scientists and experts from over 15 public and private sector institutions.
b) Bt brinjal’s agronomic and biosecurity evaluation dossier is on the GEAC website since November 2008 (http://www.envfor.nic.in/divisions/csurv/geac/bt_brinjal.html).
c) The First Expert Committee recommended to the GEAC to permit Bt brinjal for Large Scale Field Trials (July 2007). The GEAC accepted this recommendation (August 2007) and directed that the trials be conducted for two seasons under the direct supervision of the Director, Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR), Varanasi.
d) The Second Expert Committee recommended on October 8, 2009, that the Bt brinjal with event EE-1 has been extensively tested for its biosafety and no additional studies/review are necessary and this report is on the GEAC website since October 8, 2009 (http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Report%20on%20Bt%20brinjal.pdf).
e) Basing on the recommendation of the Second Expert Committee, on October 14, 2009, the GEAC approved Bt brinjal for commercialization.
f) What is the rationale behind MoEF placing for layman response the report of a scientific committee which was reviewed by the GEAC, an apex statutory scientific/expert committee? This is tantamount to an insult to the GEAC, which is MoEF’s own organ.
g) Over 25 years of research experience and over 13 years of experience in commercial cultivation over 25 countries demonstrated that Bt crops are effective and safe for use. Does this count for nothing?
h) A country’s science policy should be framed by its scientific fraternity and managed jointly by the relevant scientific institutions and the appropriate departments of the Government. The mandate for biosecurity evaluation and to permit commercialization legally rests with the GEAC.
2. ACTIVISM AGAINST GE CROPS IN INDIA
The activists trash the combined global scientific opinion on the safety and efficacy of GE products, which is supported by long global regulatory and commercial experience, and demand that they be banned. One of their ‘scientists’ recommended over 20 tests for GE crops, which he says would take over 20 years, the objective being to push deployment of GE crops by a quarter century.
The activists had a field day for over a decade unchallenged by the scientists, product developers or the Government, and now they even get more time to work hard to achieve their objective, courtesy MoEF.
The activist groups used every trick of the trade, such as pamphlet distribution using impressionable students, newspaper articles, group meetings, protests by tutored demonstrators, radio and TV presentations, videos, lecture tours by professional speakers, international multi-location of release of anti-GE publications, websites and daily internet news reports, petitions in courts, and vandalizing laboratories and GE crop trial plots, to mould public opinion against GE technology and to pressurize the Indian Government to ban it. Till the action by the Bayer Corporation in June 2009, we did not even protest against vandalization of officially sanctioned field trial plots.
The activists seek to enhance their credibility by bringing in some people with degrees and/or faded careers in science. Most of the time either these frustrated ‘scientists’ are out of tune or even belong to such unrelated fields as nuclear physics.
The activist charge sheet includes several issues, the following being more prominently repeated: GE products are toxic and allergenic, they harm non-target organisms, gene flow from transgenics eliminates related varieties/species, they become super weeds and eliminate all vegetation, they negatively impact ecology and biodiversity, there is a terminator gene in GE crops affecting the farmers’ interests, etc. They attribute farmer suicides to failure of GE crops. There is vast evidence to show that none of these charges has any substance.
They cite European Union (EU) countries for their rejection of GE crops, ignoring about 30 countries that have approved them, though even in the EU imports some GE crops (for example, MON 810 corn) are permitted. They brand GE technology as foreign technology while the ideas and means of their activism themselves were imported. The bulk of the arguments sound MNC phobia and anti-Americanism.
The spread and depth of anti-tech activism costs enormous amounts of money and the Government never questioned the sources. Opposing GE technology is a matter of livelihood and not a calling for the vast majority of the activist groups who pursue someone’s agenda.
The European role in anti-GE activism in India was being reported for long. Times of India (February 11, 2001) referred to reports that ‘the European NGOs have funded the Indian NGOs in order to stop transgenic seeds and they are spreading plenty of disinformation…. (and) have even taken the Indian government to court’ (http://www.gene.ch/genet/2001/Feb/msg00035.html).
There is vast information on the internet indicating that European funds to multinational activist groups are diverted to intervene in the policies of foreign governments and to mould public opinion in different parts of the world. For example, the Friends of Earth (FoE) produced a report entitled “Who Benefits from GM crops? - The Rise in Pesticide Use”, to mislead the public that these crops ‘are not good for the environment, as they are increasing pesticide use,’ and that they ‘do not benefit small farmers or consumers in terms of quality or price.’ This and several such other misleading claims were countered by the international scientific community.
Greenpeace and FoE are ‘multinational corporations registered themselves as political lobby organizations with European Union’ (http://www.gmobelus.com/2009/06/24/eus-ngos-declare-they-are-lobbyists). European money seems to be spent in India to disrupt our agricultural efforts. In June 2009, Greenpeace have invaded a field trial in India. It was reported that ‘Sponsored by the European Union, and funded by the government of the Netherlands, the activists struck a government-approved 1,440 sqm field trial of rice in Chinnakanjarla village of Medak district. No injuries were reported, nor any complaints lodged regarding India's territorial sovereignty’ (http://www.gmobelus.com/2009/06/24/european-lobby-group-invades-indian-field-trial).
There are several European players in India, as for example Aide à l'enfance de l'Inde (AEI), Luxembourg, which jointly with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, closely interacts with the organic farmers of Yaenabaavi village (Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh), brainwashing them against GE technology, which is evident when you visit Yaenabaavi.
If we look into who is affected by GE crops, it would be evident who seeks to stop them. The Internationally powerful pesticide industry and conventional seed industry are the most affected. The export and organic lobbies fear rejection of exports particularly by the EU if there was a GE element in the produce. Exports actually help only the middle men and not the farmers.
3. SOME IMPORTANT ISSUES
The following are some of the more important issues that need be considered:
3.1 Why do we need Bt brinjal?
In India alone, 25 million farmers cultivate brinjal on over 5.5 lakh hectares with an annual production of about 8.5 million tonnes, next to China, the top producer (Choudhary and Gaur, 2009). Most of these are small farmers.
The objective of developing Bt brinjal hybrids and varieties is to control the damage caused by the stem and fruit borers (SFB) of brinjal. Shoot damage severely restricts flower and fruit production and fruit damage drastically reduces marketability of the produce. Even after continuous and very heavy insecticide application, the yield. SFBs affect 50 to 70 per cent of the crop yield annually, the damage starting from the nursery and carried to the next crop (Choudhary and Gaur, 2009). Even excessive external application of insecticides does not much help as the pest is deep in the stem and fruit tissues. The Cry1Ac gene in Bt brinjal imparts an inbuilt systemic tolerance to the pests, particularly Leucinodes orbonalis. Helicoverpa armigera (American bollworm), the major pest on cotton which is controlled by Cry1Ac gene, also affects brinjal fruit. The Bt brinjal effectively resists both these pests resulting in diverse benefits to the farmer, consumer and the country, more particularly vastly enhanced produce recovery and the avoidable use and exposure to pesticides and their residues.
3.2 Origin of brinjal
The activists claim that India was the Centre of Origin of brinjal and a GE brinjal harms its diversity, but this does not seem to be the case. This is an emotional argument without any bearing on agricultural development, particularly now, when one can take a gene from any source and incorporate into the genome of any other organism.
Overall evidence strongly suggests that South America was the Centre of Origin of the species of the genus Solanum, to which potato (Solanum tuberosum), tomato (Solanum lycopersicum, Lycopersicum esculentum) and brinjal (Solanum melongena) belong.
The exact origin of Solanum melongena is uncertain. It is not known in the wild, barring as an escape from cultivated fields. It probably originated from the African wild species Solanum incanum. Solanum melongena was first domesticated in Southeast China, and taken to the Mediterranean region during the Arab conquests in the 7th century. If brinjal was mentioned in ancient Indian literature, it only indicates that it was naturalized, having been introduced into India, a long time ago and this in itself is not an evidence of its origin in India.
Hindu tradition prohibits brinjal in food served particularly at the time of death ceremonies (the 10th to 13th day or annual ceremonies), along with several other vegetables (even chillies for that matter) which are not native to India. This is also a pointer to that brinjal is not native to India.
3.3 Centres of Diversity of brinjal
India is one of several Centres of Diversity of brinjal. There is a large number of varieties of brinjal in India, but not two or three thousands as the activists claim, probably based on a confusion between accessions in a seed collection and the actual number of varieties/hybrids. Chaudhary and Gaur (2009) listed 28 hybrids and 88 varieties of brinjal released during the past thirty years. Farmers generally habitually opt for new varieties/hybrids and discord old ones. After a time the stored seed loses its viability and seed banks become seed musea. Counting unusable collections does not help even the activist’s an argument in boosting up the number of varieties.
3.4 Gene flow from Bt brinjal
The floral structure and pollination behavior of such Bt crops as tomato, potato, bell pepper and brinjal do not warrant any significant threat from gene flow among these crops (bt or not) or their supposed relatives (Kameswara Rao, 2008c,d). In nature, species of Solanum do not normally hybridize, as they are predominantly self-pollinated (90 per cent). Even when artificial hybrids are produced, the progeny are sterile. The farmers never complained of any hybrids between their variety and a neighbouring farmer’s variety and they do not make any effort to protect varieties of cultivated brinjals from hybridizing among themselves or with the wild Solanums.
3.5 Rejection of GE crops by some countries
There is a serious concern that European Union countries and others would reject Indian farm exports if they contain some GE element. Exports help only the middle men and not too many farmers and certainly not the small farmer. Should our agriculture be geared to cater to the European Union and a few rich exporters or should it mind our own people?
The United States Department of Agriculture issued a missive that brinjal imported from Israel and Ghana should be free from Leucinodes orbonalis and Helicoverpa armigera, both recognized as serious pests. The US has no problem with GE crops and if the quality of the Indian Bt brinjal is good, US markets would be open to it.
3.6 Society should have faith in its scientific community
The combined global scientific wisdom should be respected in evaluating GE products and the decisions on their acceptance or rejection should not be allowed to be hijacked by the vested interest using junk science to pursue inept politics of ideological imperialism, often with support from foreign agencies to promote their own interests.
3.7 Do not create a brinjal Robin Hood
For about a decade the Government failed in taking suitable action against the illegal Bt cotton in Gujarat which is still widely cultivated there. Farmers with the help of some scientists have developed several preferred varieties of illegal Bt cotton widely grown in Gujarat and also in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, as the farmers are happy with it. The scientist behind illegal Bt cotton, that came to be cultivated even before the legal Bt cotton, is hailed as (cotton) Robin Hood.
There is now a talk of illegal herbicide tolerant cotton and a herbicide and pest tolerant gene stacked cotton being cultivated in Gujarat and a virus resistant GE papaya in some parts of the country, all of which need to be verified and controlled if true.
If the commercialization of Bt brinjal is delayed and if the farmer prefers it, Bt brinjal would be clandestinely cultivated, creating a brinjal Robin Hood. Once this happens, no control will be possible later on, as it happened with illegal Bt cotton.
Persistent activism against GE crops in India is leading to a serious and unfortunate situation where any GE crop can be released for cultivation provided the developers do not say so, and in the process save enormous amounts of time and money by bypassing the regulatory regime, also benefitting farmers and consumers.
Let us not promote this tendency.
3.8 Responsibility of the media
The Indian media seem to regard only the macabre as newsworthy since they believe that ‘facts are not news’. They so readily publish all absurd anti-tech statements and hardly give any space to the pro-tech opinions, branding the authors as on industry’s payroll. The media should verify the veracity of what is being fed to them by the activists.
3.9 Bt brinjal a world food crop?
Bt brinjal, when commercialized, will be the first genetically modified food crop in South Asia and the thirteenth worldwide. Brinjal is either cultivated or imported throughout the world. A successful Bt brinjal has a great potential to become the world’s food crop.
4. SUPPORT BT BRINJAL
Consider all evidence available and if you are convinced of the efficacy and safety of Bt brinjal, communicate with the MoEF, in support of it. Those who would like to write to the Shree Jairam Ramesh, the MoEF, can do so by post (Minister of State (Independent charge), Ministry of Environment & Forests, Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi - 110003, India, or by fax ( +91-11-24362222) or by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) or post your comments via MoEF’s website (http://moef.nic.in/modules/contact-ministry/contact-ministry/ ) before December 31, 2009.
5. FURTHER READING
Space and time constraints prevent a lot more of information from being presented here. If you wish to know more, refer to the following, in addition to the websites indicated above:
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November 9, 2009