Expert alleges corrupt regulatory process
Here he's discussing the GEAC's in-principle approval of GM (Bt) eggplant/aubergine (known in India as brinjal) on October 14, which could become India's first ever GM food crop cleared for cultivation.
Dr Bhargava, who was at the GEAC's meeting on October 14th, talks here about the meeting and how it reached its decision in repsonse to a report by an Expert Committe (ECII). This committee had been established in response to earlier accusations that the report submitted in support of the biosafety of Bt brinjal by the seed company Mayhco (Monsanto's partner in India) was full of inaccuracies and missing data, and of a generally poor quality.
The Expert Committee submitted their findings on October 9th and by October 14th Bt brinjal had clearance from the GEAC. Commenting on the haste of the regulators, Dr Bhargava paints a picture of people hell-bent on approval. He says the typical attitude amongst the regulators was, "Whatever Monsanto says is God's own word but if anybody... no matter who it is... says you must do more tests, the man is a fool".
He describes the Expert Committee's report itself as "a disaster" - full of mistakes and internal inconsistencies between what was in the report and primary data. Dr Bhargava even expresses the suspicion that the Expert Committee's report, reviewing Mahyco-Monsanto's earlier report, may have been pre-written by Monsanto.
He finds it otherwise inexplicable that such a lengthy report could have been produced by the Expert Committee in the time available. He also notes the small amount of time allowed to regulators to review the report prior to the meeting at which final approval was given, suggesting that meeting was intended purely for rubber stamping.
You can hear the audio recording of Dr Bhargava's interview here: http://csestore.cse.org.in/bt_brinjals.asp
Many thanks to Aruna Rodrigues for this transcript.
Down to Earth interview with Dr Pushpa M Bhargava
Q. What do you think of the Expert Committee's report submitted to the GEAC?
Dr Bhargava: It was a disaster. There were internal inconsistencies between what was in the report and what primary data was put on the website and there were absurdities in the report.
They didn't even give time the Committee only had two meetings of about 3 hours each. You see this report, which is of several hundred pages... You don't write a report just like that. My feeling is that the report had already been written by Monsanto.
The Meeting was on the 14th, Wednesday. It was sent to the members on Friday the 9th, late. Many of the members of the Executive Committee are part of the GEAC so to them it didn't matter when the report came as they were party to the report. Many other members of the GEAC would gladly support any GM crop. Only 3 or 4 [regulators], and I was one of them, had to go through that report. To find time on Monday was simply not possible.
At night, at 2 o'clock, I glanced at the report and I found the report was full of mistakes everywhere and some absurd statements. So I said why don't you postpone this decision by one month and invite all those from whom this reports comments have come; invite the members of the GEAC, Monsanto's man and ECII members and let's have a scientific discussion. But this was simply not accepted.
I just pointed out some of the inconsistencies, The gene that was used was not Cry1Ac it is a chimeric gene which they have all along been calling Cry 1 Ac. This was raised by Seralini. Part of it is part of Cry 1 Ac and part of it 1 Ab. Then they said, there is a 99.4% homology to Cry 1 Ac, so they are calling it Cry 1 Ac, only 1 amino acid is different. Now if it is 99.4% homology then 6 amino acids have to be different. It doesn't need too much knowledge of biochemistry to understand that. So they are telling lie after lie everywhere.
Similarly I discovered later, that they discovered a difference in ---- in brinjal. I remember that figure. There was a 30 % difference between Bt brinjal and normal brinjal and ---- are responsible for taste... partially responsible. Now in the report they say that there was no difference at all between the two. If you want to know the changes that occur after insertion, there are techniques for this, do analyses, transcriptome analysis, do a metabolome analysis.
When you make transgene material the incidence of mutation is much higher than for normal breeding and the mutations can lead to deletions of certain proteins, presence of new proteins, metabolised --- change; changed functions. You know what their answer was? "These are all in their infancy." There are full 3 journals on proteomics, highly cited journals. There is a company in Hyderabad that does it commercially for people, and [they] say that the technique is in its infancy! It's like saying that sequencing proteins is in its infancy! The writers of the report assume that everyone else is stupid.
Q: They have even said these tests are very expensive and don't give any major results so there is really no point
Bhargava: Of course they come out with major results. When they do the proteomics, they will I'm sure see large numbers of results. In fact, there is a whole paper on this. Proteomics in genetically engineered material.
Q. So what is your comment on the fact that they have said, at the end of the report that Dr Bhargava's call to raise the bar on research and development will actually be detrimental to research in public sector institutions.
Bhargava: Of course I'm saying raise the bar! You are playing with the lives of people and you are (questioning) raise the bar?
Q. Do you think there is a lot of pressure on the GEAC and the Ministry from the biotech companies?
Bhargava: Of course there is. Point is should they succumb to the pressure? ------. Since I've been on the GEAC, there are at least 100 papers which I have referenced by distinguished scientists who have nothing to do with the business, and they talk about adverse properties of GM crops. Now at least, these should be discussed in the GEAC? NOT ONE PAPER HAS EVER BEEN DISCUSSED
So it is very interesting. What you can conclude, and you can quote me on this: Whatever Monsanto says is God's own word. No matter who it is who says that you must do more tests, the man is a fool!
Q. Do you think genetic modification is a good option for food security?
Bhargava: Let's remember, we have sold ourselves out to the United States of America because multi-national corporations all started from there. So we say what America says.
Q. In case the Minister allows Bt brinjal in that case what precautionary step should be taken. What is the next option that people can look for?
Bhargava: The next option is that people should stop eating brinjal, very simple. I can convey to the vendors I know, don't buy brinjal.
Q. Would labelling help, by any chance?
BhargavaYou see, labelling should in any case be there. Because we don't have labelling, [who] knows how much of GM food we have around in the market... because we have no labelling laws. Not only that. We have no institute in the country, which can TEST. Remember all the tests which have been done - of 30 tests that have been recommended only 7-8 have been done, they've been done by Monsanto, or on samples provided by Monsanto. We don't even know if Monsanto did the tests!
Q. But is there a problem [if], suppose, Bt brinjal is being grown in a field, then the crops around it would also get polluted?
Bhargava: Of course!
Q. Whether it belongs to the same Solanum family?
Bhargava: They have themselves said that the pollen travels 30 m. We pointed out that in India 84 % of farmers have less than 4 hectares of land. A very large % have less than 1 hectare of land. If you are growing Bt brinjal in your farm and the next door farm has 1 hectare, then for them to keep 30 m distance means they will have no space left to grow anything!
Q. Does this also give way to the fact that 56 crops that are under trial right now would also easily pass through the scanner?
Bhargava: Let's hope that none of them will. The fact is that the case is in the Supreme Court (SC), [and the Court] should declare a moratorium for 7 years, if we set up our own facilities.
Q. The fact that this case was in the SC and the GEAC has said, OK we are giving environmental clearance, does the SC have no say in this whole [business]?
Bhargava: Actually they are going against the SC. The fact that there is a SC case, they actually had no business to give that clearance
Q. Clearance would be null and void now?
Bhargava: Well I don’t know how the SC sees..
Q. It's actually [an] illegal way of clearing this?
Bhargava: Certainly unethical, if that means anything at all.