Top biotech scientist speaks out on scandal of GM crop approvals in India (20/6/2006)

The cover stories from India's national magazine 'Frontline':
1.Seeds and protests
2.Biotech brinjal

EXCERPT: Top biotech scientists are also critical of the manner in which the GM tests are being conducted. "It is an absolute scandal for us to allow further trials despite the failure of Bt cotton. The seed should be withdrawn immediately, just like faulty drugs are removed from the market. We are being taken for a ride by the MNC [multinational company]-government nexus. These committees don't even have specialised scientists. They exist only to promote the interests of powerful companies, not of the country..." said Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, a world-renowned pioneer of genetic engineering in India.

COVER STORY: Seeds and protests
in New Delhi
FRONTLINE, Volume 23 - Issue 12: Jun. 17-30, 2006 INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE from the publishers of THE HINDU

The UPA government's decision to allow field trials in GM food crops may have human and economic costs.

[image caption: HARVESTING COTTON IN Coimbatore. Bt Cotton seeds released by multinational companies this year failed to give increased yields. In Andhra Pradesh, a large number of cattle and sheep reportedly died after eating Bt Cotton stalks and leaves.]

"THERE is greater attention of the public and political parties on issues such as fuel price hike, essentially because the impact of such measures on the everyday lives of people is more direct and immediate. But an issue such as the proposal to introduce large-scale field trials and seed production of a genetically modified (GM) food crop does not evoke the same kind of attention, though the long-term negative impact on society is comparatively higher. Our struggle is on and we know it will be long-drawn-out." Devinder Sharma of the Coalition for GM free India (CFGMFI) comments thus about the campaign launched by his organisation against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's move to initiate field trials and seed production of four hybrids of the transgenic Bt Brinjal.

Members of the CFGMFI, a loose confederation of about 20 organisations and groups working in sectors including agriculture, consumer rights, organic farming, women's issues, medicine and environmental protection have been camping in New Delhi since the first week of June to generate awareness about the consequences of the GM food crop trials and get the government to drop the proposed move.

The government announced that it was considering a proposal to carry out the first ever GM food crop trials on May 25 rather quietly through a press release of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The press note, which was released even as the debate on the fuel price hike dominated media headlines, also announced other Ministry decisions. These included importing GM soybean oil and, commercially releasing Bt cotton hybrids developed by companies such as Nath Seeds, J.K. Seeds and Mahyco, the Indian subsidiary of the international corporate Monsanto. The press note also stated that the Bt Brinjal proposed by the UPA for field trials was, in fact, developed by Mahyco. All these decisions were apparently cleared by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry. Though the press note did not make specific references, there were indications from the Ministry that the GEAC perceived the Bt Brinjal trials as a forerunner to trials involving other food crops such as mustard, potato and tomato.

Implications for health

According to the CFGMFI, these decisions have far-reaching implications for agriculture and health . This is especially so giventhe contentious results that experiments with Bt cotton have produced in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. The CFGMFI leadership pointed out that negative consequences were all the more likely because the GEAC had said that the Bt gene being used for the brinjal trials was the same as the one used in Bt cotton.

It appears that the same set of tests carried out when Bt cotton was introduced in the country is now being applied for Bt Brinjal. The tests were essentially devised by Monsanto; the company has proclaimed that the Bt cotton seed it supplied to India was safe. However, reports from the States in which Bt cotton was introduced have indicated that the tests against effects on human health were not as foolproof as claimed by the company. Most farmers and farm workers in different States have experienced longstanding allergies of different kinds. More recently, reports from Andhra Pradesh indicated a rise in sheep mortality after grazing on Bt cotton. According to the CFGMFI, some scientific investigations have even pointed to a clear correlation between exposure to Bt Cotton and the adverse health conditions seen among farmers.

The CFGMFI asserts that studies have established that the Bt gene is a known toxin that affects human and livestock health adversely. A note submitted by the organisation to Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Anbumani Ramdoss states: "Published, peer-reviewed papers by scientists demonstrate that recombinant Cry1Ac protoxin in the Bt gene is a powerful immunogen and when fed to mice, induced antibody responses similar to those obtained with the cholera toxin. Research shows that Cry1Ac actively binds to the inner surface of the mouse's small intestine. This contests the often-heard argument that Cry proteins do not affect mammals since they supposedly do not have receptors that bind the truncated toxin in the gut."

Given these results, the CFGMFI points out, the consequences of trials with a food crop, indeed a vegetable crop that will be consumed directly, are unimaginable. The coalition argues that that introduction of the Bt gene in the food crop sector has the potential consequence of genetic manipulation. However, the position of the Ministry of Environment, as expressed by GEAC, is that the bio-safety package has been completed for brinjal and there are no reasons to stop large-scale field trials.

The Ministry proposes field trials of four hybrid varieties of different shapes and colours. It contends that the Bt gene provides protection against pests such as shoot and fruit borer and helicoverpa (bollworm). The Ministry argues that though the Bt gene used in brinjal is the same as the one in Bt cotton, more extensive bio-safety tests have been carried out since brinjal is a food crop. Ministry officials told Frontline that this time the toxicity study was conducted on mice, fish, poultry, rabbits, goats and cattle.

Commercial concerns

Apart from health concerns, the commercial dimensions of the exercise are also being questioned. There is a widespread perception, shared even by some State Agriculture Ministers belonging to the Congress, that the manner in which GM seeds are promoted is beneficial only to private companies, particularly big multinational corporations like Monsanto. The National Commission on Farmers headed by Professor M.S. Swaminathan has recommended that "the public sector must come up with competitive Bt cotton hybrids so as to lower the seed cost and benefit resource-poor farmers". He has highlighted the need to develop non-hybrid Bt cotton varieties to enable the reduction of seed prices, and to help farmers to retain their own seeds and to share them. But in almost every segment, companies such as Mahyco have held sway over the development and distribution of Bt seeds.

[image caption: SPRAYING PESTICIDE IN a brinjal field. The brinjal trials are seen as a forerunner to trials involving other food crops such as mustard, potato and tomato.]

Such monopolies have had a negative effect on trade practices.In early June Agriculture Ministers and senior officials of seven cotton-growing States met in Hyderabad. They appealed to the Central government to join them and implead in the case against Monsanto on the pricing of Bt cotton seed. The meeting also called for a regulatory body to be set up to fix the trait value (a form of royalty charge) for technology products, which was being used by companies like Monsanto to extract unfair prices from farmers. For every 450 gm of seeds sold in India, Monsanto charged a trait value without any rationalisation. The trait value was first fixed (in 2004) at Rs.1,200 for 450 gm and increased to Rs.1,250 in 2005. It was reduced to Rs.900 for the kharif season in 2006. However, the trait value in the United States has remained at the equivalent of Rs.300 for the same weight for many years. The Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (TPC) took note of this in May and asked Monsanto to reduce the trait value in India. The Hyderabad meeting, chaired by State Agriculture Minister Raghuveera Reddy and attended by Ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Gujarat government, the Janata Dal (S)-led Karnataka government and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) -led West Bengal government, called upon all cotton-growing States to unite and fight the Monsanto monopoly.

Even as such calls go out, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Ministry has opened up new areas for Monsanto. The Left parties referred to this trend in a note submitted at the UPA-Left Coordination Committee meeting on June 15. The note pointed out that "the Seeds Bill piloted by the Ministry of Agriculture seeks to subvert the seed rights of farmers and facilitate monopolisation of the seed business in the hands of the multinational seed companies. The Indo-U.S. Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Research and Education ... has not only empowered Wal-Mart and Monsanto to dictate the agenda of agricultural research in India but also ensured that such research will be largely funded by the U.S.-based multinationals and therefore tied to the stringent intellectual property regime of the U.S."

The campaign on Bt Brinjal trials is, for the time being, carried forward primarily by organisations such as the CFGMFI. Many political parties may not accept the outright rejection of GM technology propounded by segments of the CFGMFI and a section of academics and activists.

However, the human and economic dimensions of the propagation of GM seeds in India and the wide-ranging political reaction it has evoked indicates that the issue could well be another political front against the UPA's neoliberal policies.

2.Biotech brinjal
FRONTLINE Volume 23 - Issue 12: Jun. 17-30, 2006 INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE from the publishers of THE HINDU

Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar had a rather unusual bunch of visitors last week - Greenpeace protesters dressed up as sheep and cattle, who camped outside his office. The "animals" were asking for an investigation into the death of 1,600 head of cattle and sheep in Andhra Pradesh in April 2006. The deaths were closely linked to prolonged consumption of Bt cotton stalks and leaves that were left in fields after the harvest.

Bt cotton is the only genetically modified (GM) seed sold in India. In the four years since it has been in use, not only has it failed to live up to its claim of being a `miracle seed', but it has also had harmful effects on biosafety.

At a time when the safety of Bt cotton is highly suspect, the government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is considering clearance of large-scale field trials of Bt Brinjal. It is the first time that GM Brinjal is being released for an advanced stage of field trials in open conditions anywhere in the world. It is also the closest India has got to sanctioning GM food crops.

If cleared, it will be the first time that the GEAC allows large-scale field trials for GM food crops. Such field trials could lead to the uncontrolled release of genetically modified organisms into the environment, which could contaminate normal varieties of the crop. Japan and several European countries have banned cultivation of GM food crops. But India is allowing it entry without taking adequate precautions.

Bt seeds are created by inserting a gene (Cry1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into a plant cell. This gene is supposed to protect the brinjal from insects such as the fruit and shoot borer. Bt cotton provides resistance to bollworm because the insect dies after eating the Bt toxin; the toxin disrupts its digestive process.

Biosafety tests for Bt brinjal started in 2002. After two years of greenhouse evaluation, Mahyco, the company producing the seed, started field trials in 11 locations with five hybrids in 2004. The results of the limited field trials have been posted on the GEAC website. The GEAC has invited public feedback before it decides whether to give clearance for large-scale field trials.

Several environmental groups and farmers' associations have appealed against the trials. But the GEAC is dismissive. "We would like some concrete objections based on the data placed before us by Mahyco, not general, emotional arguments," B.S. Parsheera, Chairperson of the GEAC, told Frontline. However, environmentalists opposing the trials say that the data are too sketchy to provide scientific feedback. "This shows how the GEAC takes decisions that affect the health of millions - based on meaningless presentations by companies," said Kavitha Kuruganti from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

Top biotech scientists are also critical of the manner in which the GM tests are being conducted. "It is an absolute scandal for us to allow further trials despite the failure of Bt cotton. The seed should be withdrawn immediately, just like faulty drugs are removed from the market. We are being taken for a ride by the MNC [multinational company]-government nexus. These committees don't even have specialised scientists. They exist only to promote the interests of powerful companies, not of the country. And these MNCs, such as Monsanto which is promoting Bt seeds in India, have a notorious record all over the world," said Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, a world-renowned pioneer of genetic engineering in India.

"No country in the world has a satisfactory system of assessing the risks associated with the release of GM plants into the environment. What has happened in this extremely lax environment all over the world is extremely disturbing, " Bhargava explained. "It is shocking that no tests were done to monitor the effects on cattle or sheep if they ate the leaves of the Bt cotton plant, even though in India crop plants are often fed to cattle as fodder. That is why so many animals died in Andhra Pradesh. The main problem is that there is a conflict of interest in using the tests and data provided by the company."

The GEAC denies any such vested interest. "What vested interest? We are following all the norms laid down. Many institutes across the country are conducting the tests," said Parsheera.

The effects on human health are numerous and often unknown. A recent study in Madhya Pradesh found that farm workers exposed to Bt cotton had allergies including skin eruptions and swollen faces. The Cry1Ac gene is a powerful immunogen and can prompt adverse reactions from the immune system. If humans eat Bt brinjal it is possible that the Bt toxin can enter the human digestive system and interfere with the bacteria in the intestines. There are severe limitations to current allergy testing procedures for genetically modified organisms. Many GM crops such as beans and Starlink corn were found to produce allergies after they were sold in the market.

The NptII gene used as a marker in Bt brinjal can affect antibiotic resistance. The cauliflower mosaic virus, a viral promoter used in Bt brinjal, is similar to the hepatitis B virus, and could reactivate dormant viruses. Studies worldwide have shown that eating GM food can result in wasteful growth of gut tissues and bacterial proliferation, intestinal tumours, immune system suppression and interference with the development of the body's vital organs.

Mahyco, however, denied that there were any health risks. "Bt is no more immunogenic than any other protein that human and animals are exposed to," said Mahendra Sharma, managing director of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech and general manager of Mahyco. "It does not have any effect on the gut of mammals. It only kills insects. Studies have shown that if mammals consume 100mg of the toxin for every 1 kg of body weight, there is no adverse effect. We conducted tests on cooked Bt brinjal and they showed that the DNA disintegrated with the heat and there was no harmful effect. There is no risk of antibiotic resistance or risk of re-activating any viruses." None of Mahyco's claims has been verified independently, said Bhargava.

Genetically modified plants can harm the environment and biodiversity. Once out in the fields, there is no way of knowing whether normal plant varieties have been contaminated by the GM variety through pollination, which could lead to the extinction of local crop varieties. This is the reason for the `buffer zone' that most GM crops have rarely followed in India where land is scarce. Moreover, the Cry1Ac gene affects butterflies and moths and alters soil microbiology. Farmers using Bt cotton in India report decline in soil productivity. However, Mahyco said that its tests had ruled out the possibility of any such adverse impact on the environment.

Three varieties of the Bt cotton seed were denied permission of extension by the GEAC, based on the Andhra Pradesh government's analysis that their performance was inadequate. Two more varieties were banned by the Andhra Pradesh government after farmers' crops failed and the company refused to pay compensation. Yet, the GEAC feels that India needs GM technology. "We are far behind the rest of the world in biotechnology. We should catch up or we will face severe food security problems," said Parsheera.

"It is absurd to say that GM crops will bring us food security. Is there no food security in E.U. countries that have banned GM?" asked Bhargava. "It may kill biodiversity. Several organic methods of cultivation have proved far more effective," he said.

Field studies by the Deccan Development Society disproved many of the claims made about the advantages of using Bt Cotton. It is supposed to reduce expenses on pest management and increase productivity, but the study found that organic farmers had higher net returns and lower pest management costs.

The government is racing headlong into the genetic engineering maze, though agricultural studies are showing that natural processes are more effective. In just four years of GM technology, we have seen many disastrous results. Will no one listen as nature strikes back?


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