GM brinjal brings shame to Indian science
India Today, September 30 2010
The genetically modified brinjal has brought shame to Indian science.
Top six science academies, which unanimously recommended lifting of the moratorium on BT brinjal imposed by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in February, are in the dock for the worst crime a scientist can commit - intellectual cheating or plaigiarism. Individual scientists being accused of it is nothing new, but for the first time ever, all academies as a collective have been found guilty of plaigiarism.
The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) President Dr M. Vijayan has admitted to committing, what he calls, a 'slip'. But he is not willing to take the next logical step - withdrawal of the report. In any case withdrawal is irrelevant now because the man who commissioned it - Ramesh - has already consigned the report to its rightful place - the dustbin.
The slur on these prominent academies is a grave issue. The question is not merely about lack of attribution or citation of the copied material - as academies are trying to present it - but 'bad science' (some critics have dubbed it 'gutter science') that the report epitomises.
Scientists who drafted the report did not care to examine data submitted by developers of Bt brinjal to the regulator based on which clearance was given.
Instead, they relied on the 'views' of an individual scientist - P. Anand Kumar - expressed in a newsletter. Interestingly, it is a double whammy because Kumar in his article published in Biotech News drew liberally from report of a Monsanto and Mahyco-funded outfit - International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). So, in effect, the academies based their socalled recommendations on industry data.
And why shouldn't they do so (copy or quote ISAAA data) when science and technology minister Prithivraj Chavan did the same in an official letter as did the Minister of State for Agriculture KV Thomas while replying to questions in the Parliament?
On the same day when the disgraced report of academies was being circulated, another report on Bt brinjal - the Scope and Adequacy of the GEAC Environment Risk Assessment (ERA) - by Dr David A Andow of the University of Minnesota was released.
Andow was contacted by the US National Academy of Sciences for a scientific evaluation of the Expert Committee-II (EC-II) report, based on which Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) cleared Bt brinjal.
This was done at the request of Ramesh.
Compared to the stink raised by the Indian academies, Andow's report comes like a breath of fresh air. It dissects the ERA data on Bt brinjal with the precision of a surgeon, with several pages of references.
Andow unequivocally concludes that the scope of ERA set by GEAC was too narrow and that EC-II did not perform an adequate ERA. Because of resistance, he predicts, Bt brinjal is projected to fail in 4 to 12 years.
Irrespective of the findings, the Andow report is a shining example of good science and I would strongly recommend Presidents of all six Indian academies to read it.
Bio-safety of Bt Brinjal is an illusion
Indian science academies may be satisfied with the biosafety of Bt brijal, but the latest research on GM corn in the US has shown that foreign genes inserted in it can escape into the environment.
A study in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that streams throughout the GM corn belt in Midwestern America are contaminated with insecticidal proteins that originate from adjacent genetically modified crops. The study supports one of the major criticisms against GM crops - the genetic pollution they cause.
An assessment of 217 stream sites in Indiana revealed that dissolved Cry1Ab proteins from Bt corn was present in stream water at nearly a quarter of the sites. Nearly 86 percent sites contained corn leaves, husks, stalks in their channels and in 13 percent of the sites corn byproducts contained detectable Cry1Ab proteins.
The study was conducted six months after the harvest, indicating that the insecticidal proteins in crop byproducts can persist in the environment. All of the sites with detectable Cry1Ab proteins were located within 500 meters of a corn field. Cry1Ab is the same gene that is used in Bt brinjal in India.
SC's timely corrective
We have not yet heard the last word on Bt brinjal. The Supreme Court - currently hearing a case filed by Aruna Rodrigues seeking a moratorium on open field trials of untested genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - has directed setting up of a panel of scientists to advise it on risk assessment protocols for GM crops such as Bt brinjal.
This panel will examine the dossier provided by the developers. It will also look at " the sequencing of risk assessment protocols to determine when they can be tested under field conditions" so as to ensure safe release into the environment of tested GMOs.
They will suggest a protocol for testing of GM plants for contamination at internationally certified labs that can test to a minimum ' level of detection' of at least 0.01 percent
The economic benefits of Bt brinjal are being overestimated.
The losses due to brinjal fruit and shoot borer (BFSB) are cited to justify introduction of genetically engineered varieties. EC- II has vastly over- estimated losses due to BFSB, says the Andow report.
Real losses are higher for large- scale commercial farmers than for small scale poor farmers because of the way they use even the damaged fruit.
Integrated pest management, rather than Bt brinjal, would bring in greater benefits to farmers.
More research is needed to estimate net economic returns from traditional, local and organic practices to limit the damage of BFSB. Only when these values are known can the government policies promote technologies that will benefit farmers
Scientists not above conflicting interests
The way the inter-academy report has been prepared is giving rise to doubts on the intentions behind it.
Of the six academies involved, at least one - The Indian National Academy of Engineering - has nothing to do with genetically engineered crops, unless they say that the definition of ' engineering' is so wide that it covers genetic engineering as well.
Presidents of at least two other academies - The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences ( India) - had a direct conflict of interest with the issue at stake.
Both of them have been vocal supporters and recipients of funds for development of GM crops.
Dr Mangala Rai, who heads the agricultural academy, has co-chaired a multi-million dollar funding mechanism called Indo-US Agriculture Knowledge Initiative set up to promote GM crops in India. Board members of AKI include representatives of Monsanto, Walmart and ITC.
Dr Asis Datta, President of the National Academy of Sciences, has developed GM potato and tomato with liberal grants from the Department of Biotechnology during the past two decades.
Like the citations and references, our top scientists perhaps also forgot that they need to declare 'conflict of interest' as well, particularly when decisions relating to billions of dollars of investments hinge on their report. Was this also a slip, Dr Vijayan?