The Bt Brinjal Boycott

Posted on February 4, 2010 in Health and Life

Avnish Gaurav:

Remember the famous Indian dish litti-chokha? It might become a thing of the past. Thanks to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Profit motives have already caused unending sufferings to mankind. Yet another one is being added to the long list. In other words, man is replacing the laboratory rats. Too much of beating about the bush?

Coming to the point, the Indian government is contemplating to introduce a genetically modified variety of brinjal, the Bt Brinjal. It is being developed by a 50:50 joint venture between Maharashtra based Mahyco and US based multinational Monsanto. So a staple Indian vegetable that originated in India and has been on Indian plates for the last 4000 years will no longer be truly Indian. In addition, Indians will be getting free tickets to diseases, environmental disasters and ecological imbalances as an offer.

Bt Brinjal is created by inserting a gene [Cry 1Ac] from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into Brinjal. This is said to give the Brinjal plant resistance against lepidopteron insects like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit Borer (Helicoverpa armigera). It is reported that upon ingestion of the Bt toxin by the insect, there would be disruption of digestive processes, ultimately resulting in the death of the insect. Once a farmer purchases the seeds of the varieties, he can re-use them for subsequent generations (in the case of hybrids, they need to purchase seeds every year). This reduces the dependence on seed supply chain, and in turn, reduces the seed input cost.

Such are the perceived dangers from Bt-brinjal in India that Anbumani Ramadoss, a former federal health minister and a medical doctor, wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday asking for a halt to the programme. Ramadoss’s letter, made available to IPS, asked for a “moratoriums on all GM (Genetically Modified) crop releases for at least 10 years and until all pending issues are resolved and questions answered”. Experts lack information on the indirect effect on the food chain as a whole, particularly with the regard to gene flow, and the possibility of GM contamination of neighbouring brinjal crops. The longest toxicity test was only for 90 days, which does not assess long-term effects such as the development of cancers or tumours.

Some manifestations of the hazards of genetically modified products:-

1. GM-fed animals in various studies have shown that there are problems with growth, organ development and damage, immune responsiveness and so on.
2. A study from Philippines shows that people living next to Bt Corn crop fields had developed many mysterious symptoms, especially during pollination time.
3. Genes inserted into GM food survive digestive processes and are transferred into the human body. They are known to have transferred themselves into intestinal bacteria too.
4. Changes in lactating cows were observed in increased weight gain, intake of more dry roughage matter and milk production up by 10-14 percent as if they were treated by a hormone.
5. Rats fed with Bt brinjal, had diarrhoea, increased water consumption; decrease in liver weight, and liver to body weight. Feed intake was modified in broiler chickens.
6. In 2003, nearly 2,500 sheep died after grazing in Bt cotton fields. Rats fed with GM tomatoes developed bleeding stomachs. ‘Of the 20 rats, 7 developed stomach lesions; another 7 of 40 died within two weeks.

If cleared for human consumption, Bt-brinjal will be the first GM vegetable crop approved for cultivation anywhere in the world. GM corn and GM soya are mainly used to feed cattle in North America or go into processed foods. Unfortunately Indians will be the first consumer. Then what else? Widespread fatalities, processions throughout the country, some judicial proceedings and few million dollars as compensation, as has always been.

There has been widespread protest throughout India; thousands of farmers protesting the decision. So far, over 70 000 Indians have signed the “I am No Lab Rat” anti-GM protest in India that is also battling large scale cultivation of Bt cotton. Final outcome will very likely depend on the strength of our opposition.

India’s experience with Bt cotton should be an eye-opener. Bt cotton was allowed to be grown without proper safety evaluation. Losses from Bt cotton are one of the main causes for the 150,000 farmers’ suicides in India since 1997 — a number unprecedented in world history.

“The case of Bt-brinjal is critical because there are several other edible crops that are now in various stages of genetic modification waiting to follow the same route to the dining table,”