'We need a moratorium on Bt cotton and new GM testing'
Business Standard, July 11 2008

*Q&A/ Pushpa Mitter Bhargava
Latha Jishnu / New Delhi

Since April 2 this year, there has been a palpable air of tension at the meetings of the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) at Paryavaran Bhavan in Delhi. That's when Pushpa Mitter Bhargava, regarded by many as the architect of biotechnology in India, began attending the meetings of the apex regulatory body on genetic engineering as a special nominee of the Supreme Court. Known for his role in setting up the country's premier research institution, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, Bhargava is taken aback by the lax ways of the GEAC and "going purely on the documentation provided by it" is surprised that no one has pointed out the serious lapses in the testing of genetically modified (GM) crops. In a detailed interview to Latha Jishnu, he explains why there should be a five-year moratorium on Bt cotton and field trials of other crops till we clean up the system. (Dr Bhargava's views were made available to eight GEAC members for their comments a
week ago, but none chose to respond.)

Why should there be a moratorium on Bt cotton?

A great deal of work has been done in the last few years which calls for a total recall of Bt cotton. For instance, gene flow studies have shown that we need to be cautious about the risks posed by GM crops to other plants. That's why on May 16, the UN Conference on Biodiversity concluded that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were responsible for damage to other crops. In India, the reported cases of Bt allergy in the north have not been investigated. In AP, there have been reported cases of a large number of sheep dying after feeding on the Bt cotton plants.

GEAC claims that the AP government had blamed these sheep deaths on the residue of pesticides used.

The letter from the Directorate of Animal Husbandry, Hyderabad clearly says none of the pesticide residues mentioned by the GEAC were found in the samples. The letter also gives the lie to another claim about studies having been done on the impact of Bt toxin on the environment and animals. In fact, the department says biosafety trials must be conducted on the effect of continuous grazing on harvested or intact Bt cotton plants and has warned shepherds to not allow their animals to graze on Bt cotton fields in the interim.

What do you make of this?

At every stage there is a bias if not deceit all the way. I am only looking at the data provided by the GEAC itself.

Now that we are going in for GM food such as Bt brinjal and 24 other crops, how safe are these for human consumption given that vegetables and fruits will carry Bt toxin?

The GEAC website had the same result on the presence of Bt protein in the uncooked varieties, for both the non-GM and GM brinjals! Whatever data is available for Bt brinjal is partial and even suspicious.

The GEAC says its data is available on the website for anyone to check.

The website carries conclusions and not the data, and there is an extremely important distinction between these.

With Bt cotton accounting for 60 per cent of the crop (both legal and illegal seeds) is a ban feasible?

Yes, of course. After all, drugs are withdrawn from the market when new information comes to light. Switzerland has just announced a moratorium on GMOs till 2012 and has found tremendous support from the people.

What will a moratorium achieve?

We can clean the regulatory process. Most important, we should set up a national facility for doing all the necessary tests on GMOs and training skilled and objective inspectors. This institution should be run jointly by government and civil society. So far there has been no supervision at all of field trials and only now is the GEAC preparing a draft document on this. We also need a comprehensive protocol on risk assessment. Right now there are too many unethical practices.

Can you elaborate on this?

The trials being conducted in West Bengal on Bt okra, for instance, were started on the basis of approval granted by the local panchayat, surely the least knowledgeable about the risks of GMOs. The state and district committees on biotechnology gave conditional approval only six months later in February 2008. Worse, the agricultural university monitoring the field trials has given a damning report on the way it is being conducted.

What is your primary concern?

No comprehensive risk assessment has been done. Some of the significant tests that have not been done are chronic toxicity, DNA fingerprinting, proteomics analysis, studies on reproductive interference. The most worrying issue is that whatever test data has been given to GEAC is provided by the applicant company itself, such as on the toxicity and allergenicity of the GMO. There is no proof that the company actually did these tests, and as far as I am concerned no valid data exists.

Is it because there was no independent validation?

Some tests were done by an outside party (not validation) such as Intox, Rallis and Sriram Institute. But this makes no difference because the samples were provided by the applicant companies and were not double blinded. How do we know that the samples were of the GM variety?

What is a sane policy on GM?

We should first determine if there is an alternative. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has done a lot of work, on around 85 crops, to prove the efficacy of the integrated pest management and bio-pesticide protocol. This is a far cheaper and better way to increase farm production but has been ignored. Remember, only 11 countries in the world have gone in for GM crops and of these, just four, the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina account for the bulk.

Are worries on GM food being exaggerated by the anti-GM lobby?

Just look at the recent study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, one of the most cited journals in the world. It says that dietary DNA can find its way into blood, opening up the possibility of GMO DNA transforming somatic cells. Such transformations can have a major deleterious effect on the host.