Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has come out in support of the verdict on Bt-brinjal given here today by Jairam Ramesh, minister of state (independent charge) for environment and forests.
• Endorses moratorium till scientific studies establish safety of the product
• Hopes extreme caution will be exercised in doing these studies
• Calls for effective testing, regulatory and labeling mechanism for GM-foods to be put in place
Ramesh has announced a moratorium on the cultivation of this genetically modified vegetable till independent scientific studies establish the safety of the product from the point of view of its impact on health of the people and the environment.
Said Sunita Narain, director, CSE: “We have consistently voiced our concerns on this issue. We are not against the use of genetically modified technology to improve crop yields. But we definitely oppose the introduction of Bt-brinjal.”
She explains: “The first thing that should put us on our guard is the fact that we are talking of genetically modifying, for the first time, a vegetable that is a common food of nearly daily use in most of our homes. The brinjal is used for human consumption directly and not processed into bread or used in other processed foods. In many parts of the country, it is even eaten uncooked. We, therefore, need to be extremely cautious in our review of this food.”
Scientific and regulatory black hole
“We believe India needs a stringent system of testing, regulating and labeling all genetically modified foods before these can be introduced here. It is a question of public health, which can’t be compromised at any cost,” says Kushal P S Yadav, head of CSE’s food safety and toxins unit.
Testing to establish the safety of genetically modified foods is also extremely contentious. Testing for GM content in food is neither easy nor cheap. The debate revolves around two issues: whether enough has been done to study the chronic impacts of eating this daily vegetable on our bodies and health, and who has done these studies.
Monsanto-MAHYCO – the owner company – has largely studied acute toxicity, which refers to a lethal dose at which there would be a mortality of 50 per cent or more. The company has also done studies on allergic reactions and skin irritation. There are very few studies on sub-chronic toxicity – just 90 days on rats, rabbits and goats.
The question that CSE asks is: are the studies good enough to understand the long-term impacts of ingesting Bt-brinjal? The company says yes, maintaining 90 rat days are roughly equivalent to 20-21 human years. Opposing scientists say no, the chronic impacts need a different protocol of study.
Furthermore, there is still the concern of how the Cry1Ac toxin breaks down in food and in our bodies. The company says it has data to show the protein breaks down in cooked food and in our digestive system, but admits it remains active in an alkaline medium. With brinjal being often eaten raw and our digestive system being mildly alkaline, it is necessary to exercise extreme caution.
CSE researchers say Bt-brinjal can’t be compared with Bt-cotton, which is used as fodder or processed to make cottonseed oil. In fact, all other GM crops across the world are either eaten in processed form (soya) or used after industrial refining (corn or rapeseed oil).
There is also the question of whether this research, largely conducted by companies which would have gained the most from an approval to Bt-brinjal, can be ‘trusted’. Currently, all research is funded by companies and then presented to regulators for clearance, leading to a crisis of credibility.
Says Narain: “It is clear we need a new system -- research must be publicly funded and openly scrutinised. The money must come from companies, but in the form of a cess collected in a fund. Without that, even good research will be tainted by bad public faith.”
Tied to this is the issue of giving the consumer a choice: as yet, there is no labeling system in India for genetically modified foods which can help a consumer decide. Moreover, say CSE researchers, setting up such a system for a vegetable would be virtually impossible in a country the size of India, where tests would have to be done on the farms of GM and non-GM crop growers.
Labeling of GM-foods will require a strengthened laboratory and regulatory framework. India has neither. Over and above this, there are concerns about what this ‘foreign’ introduction will do to the biodiversity of brinjal – India is the centre of origin of this vegetable, over 2,500 varieties of which are grown here. While company scientists say Bt-brinjal will not contaminate other varieties, research shows that cross-pollination is definitely possible.