Leading scientist calls for GM freeze
Pushpa M Bhargava
Express News Service (India), 2 Nov 2009
I had the privilege of being one of the two persons who coined the term 'genetic engineering' (GE) independently in 1973 in articles in the public press.
We predicted that this technology would revolutionise our lives. Later, in the 1980's, I had the privilege of chairing the first national committee on genetic engineering and molecular biology set up by the Science and Engineering Research Council, the largest scientific grant-giving body of the government of India. We set up all the facilities required for doing GE so that this technique may be widely used in our country both in the private and the public sector.
In many ways, the promise of GE has been fulfilled in the last 25 years. We wouldn't have, for example, such cheap hepatitis vaccine and human insulin as we have today, were it not for genetic modification (GM) technology. But like all highimpact technologies, its indiscriminate use by unethical vested interests has raised many problems. The area where these problems are having the highest impact is the production of GM crops - both edible (like Bt brinjal) and non-edible (like Bt cotton) which is the only GM crop so far permitted to be commercialised in India.
There are at least 10 reasons as to why commercialisation of GM crops (largely in the US, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil, with some 90 per cent of member-countries of the UN being opposed to GM crops and GM food) has been unethical and why we in India should put a moratorium on their open field trials and environmental release for 10 years, which is the period we would need to prepare ourselves for dealing with them objectively and in national interest: n All marketed GM crops in all countries excepting China, have been produced by the private sector (often multinational corporations) which has only profit as its motive.
Some of these MNCs have a long and a continuing record of engaging in illegal and unethical practices for which they have been fined in spite of their close liaison with the government of their country (mostly USA).
These MNCs have prevented local development of GM crops and attempted to establish a monopoly with the help of local bureaucracy, political set up and even scientists.
Propagation of GM technology has been a ploy to control seed production in India, for anyone who controls seed and agro-chemicals production, controls food security in our country and thus the country itself.
A much larger number of mutations (genetic changes) occur on genetic manipulation than in normal plant-breeding. Such mutations can change the chemistry and biochemistry of the organism at the molecular level, which could have a dramatic impact on the functioning of the plant.
There are techniques such as DNA fingerprinting, chromosomal analysis, proteomics, transcriptomonics and metabolonomics which can identify these changes. These techniques have not been used in the case of any GM crop, including Bt brinjal.
Around 30 tests have been identified by responsible and credible scientists around the world which need to be done to establish bio-safety and functional viability of a GM crop. I brought these tests to the notice of the GEAC immediately after I was nominated on it by the Supreme Court.
Nowhere in the world including India, all these tests have been done. More than twothirds of these tests, such as long-term toxicity experiment or tests for carcinogenicity, have not been conducted.
The tests that have been done, have been done largely by the company itself and that too, at times, in a shoddy way. A few tests that have been done by other accredited organisations have been done on samples provided by the company. None of these tests have ever been validated by an independent organisation with high public credibility and, therefore, are as good as not having been done. The GEAC has put an implicit faith in Monsanto, and has accepted what Monsanto has said as the gospel truth, in spite of Monsanto’s well-documented extremely poor record of honesty, integrity and ethics, spanning over several decades. Details of this record can be provided.
It is an anachronism that in spite of India being so scientifically and technologically advanced, we do not have an independent laboratory with high public credibility which can do all the required bio-safety and related tests and thus keep an eye on the validity of the tests done by a company such as Monsanto. This has been a deliberate omission to help MNCs.
We have no labelling laws, unlike many other countries including most of Europe and the UK, where, if a food product contains more than 0.9 per cent of GM material, it must be labelled as GM so that the buyer has an informed choice when he is buying food. We have deliberately ensured that we do not have such labelling laws so that if Bt brinjal is approved by the government for environmental release and commercialised, we will not know that we are eating it.
There has been an enormous amount of highly responsible and credible scientific literature by scientists, published in some of the world’s best-known journals in the last few years, which talks about the many toxic and other undesirable effects of GM food and GM crops. The GEAC has, in any of the meetings that I have attended, never discussed even one of these findings, and assumed that there is no case against GM crops.
The reports and statements put out by GEAC have been, many a times, factually incorrect and full of inconsistencies. An example would be the 102-page report of the committee called EC-II which was appointed to look at the criticisms by many distinguished foreign scientists and me on the bio-safety data of Monsanto on Bt brinjal; it will not stand independent scientific scrutiny anywhere. Virtually no time was given to the members of the GEAC to go through this report which was passed at the meeting of the GEAC on the October 14 this year, in just about one hour which included its presentation item-by-item and discussion.
There is a great deal of other evidence which strongly indicates a nexus between MNCs (read USA), our bureaucracy and political set-up and a small number of our privileged people, who wish to use GM crops such as Bt brinjal to further their personal agenda that have nothing to do with the interests of over 90 per cent of the people of the country.
In the light of this, the decision of Jairam Ramesh, minister for environment and forests, to postpone decision on environmental release of Bt brinjal until enough time has been given to people to review what has been done on Bt brinjal critically and according to stringent scientific norms, and then to have a scientific discussion on the merit or demerit of such a release, is fair and wise. We must commend the minister for his courageous stand.