While passing an interim order staying field trials of genetically modified (gm) crops, the Supreme Court had observed on September 22, that the proceedings of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac) -- the regulator for gm crops -- had to be absolutely transparent and vetted by independent experts with the requisite technical qualifications. What must have contributed to this observation was the manner in which geac had gone about clearing gm cotton and was going about giving its imprimatur to gm brinjal.
Transparency and technical rigour, however, are not the only issues. The question of a multiplicity of agencies involved in regulating gm crops also has to be addressed.Apart from geac, which is an arm of the Union ministry of environment and forests, the Regulatory Committee for Genetic Manipulation (rcgm), which is under the department of biotechnology, has a role to play.
Pushpa Bhargava, founder director of the Centre for Molecular Biology, Hyderabad and currently vice-chairman of the Knowledge Commission, has written in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly (April 13, 2002) "Both these committees (geac and rcgm)...have the following flaws (a) they have been professionally incompetent, and unknowledgeable, especially about the world scenario; and (b) they have shown a total lack of... transparency."
Take the case of Bt (Bacillus thurengiensis) cotton to begin with. After this gm cotton was cleared by the regulators, a fierce debate on the advisability of the decision had been unleashed. It was stoked further by the rising graph of suicides by cotton farmers, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra's Vidarbha region. The proliferation of pirated strains of gm cotton and the government's inability to stem it gave more ammunition to the critics of gm crops. But, it is important to remember, the potential health hazards of Bt cotton were only indirect -- it could enter the human food chain only indirectly, say when its products were used as livestock feed. So, when the regulators took the first steps towards testing gm brinjal all hell broke loose.
Brinjal enters the human food chain directly, being consumed in India as a vegetable widely across social classes. Moreover, the plant is also used in ayurvedic formulations. Any potential adverse health hazards would be lethal and pretty much universal. So when a powerful multinational began to push for the introduction of Bt brinjal, citing its increased resistance to the shoot and fruit borer pest, there was a furore. Among the questions that immediately cropped up was why were native local and existing high-yielding varieties, which were immensely popular with farmers, being given the short shrift.
The brunt of the argument against gm brinjal was that it had not been given clearance for advanced field trials anywhere in the world. Critics pointed out that geac was being pressured to allow such trials even though it had been abundantly demonstrated that the government had failed in its role as a regulator -- from the level of pollution through pollination to that of piracy.
There were glaring experimental lapses in the process of introducing Bt brinjal and one has to critically examine some of the aspects of the breach of established scientific protocols, detailed by the department of biotechnology, by the Indian subsidiary of the multinational involved in producing and promoting Bt brinjal.
Allergenicity of the protein extract from Bt brinjal was tested on brown Norway rats and not on male rabbits
Guidelines prescribe in vivo and in vitro immunological assays for the detection of reactogenic antibodies in the test sera. In vivo assay was not done
Though the Cry 1Ac gene (used for gm brinjal) was earlier considered generally innocuous, recently published evidence indicates that Cry 1Ac protein from Bacillus thurengiensis could have effects similar to the cholera toxin
There is conclusive experimental evidence to show that root exudates of gm crops alter soil microflora profile decreasing soil productivity
The field data from the experiments conducted by the Indian subsidiary of the multinational promoting the Bt brinjal failed to statistically analyse the collected data, which rendered its conclusions scientifically invalid. It is also made no attempt to determine economic viability for the farmer
Civil society organisations and scientists want a re-examination of a number of issues through pollen flow studies, agronomic trials, toxicity and allergenicity tests, protein estimation studies, biodiversity and socio-economic impact assessments to protect rights of farmers and consumers.
The author is an agricultural scientist. He can be contacted at email@example.com