Published: Wednesday 31 March 2010

Independence is a disqualification

US pressure on India to approve the commercial production of Bt brinjal was evident when Nina Fedoroff, science adviser to US secretary of state, visited India just when the environment minister was to take a decision on the GM crop. Fortunately, the minister put a moratorium on Bt brinjal.

Still, this is not the time for complacence. We have to get all items with Bt gene out of the way until scientists conduct their genotoxicity studies, which would take five-six years, and establish they are safe for consumers and the environment. The government needs to decide on the long-term tests that need to be carried out on mammals, and finally on human volunteers, to see if all the mammalian in-vivo tests prove safe. It also needs to ascertain if the toxic Bt protein would alter the medicinal properties of brinjal—it is antidiabetic—and affect the more than 2,000 indigenous varieties available in the country. I have seen some very fine quality indigenous brinjal varieties grown in a small region near Mangalore (Karnataka); they are relatively free of shoot borer pest. We should not repeat the mistakes of the past. Until Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, we worshipped ddt; its inventor Paul Muller won the Nobel. It was Carson who alerted the world to the dangers of using pesticides indiscriminately and it eventually led to a ban on ddt.

I am one of the founders of genetic toxicology (testing safety of irradiated foods, edibles with artificial additives, modified foods) in India. I once casually mentioned to a senior government official that I would like to serve in the genetic engineering approval committee, the apex committee under the Union environment ministry for clearing gmos. I was told I was far too unbending and a threat to achieving the desired goal.

P C Kesavan
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai

Who needs Bt brinjal?

Your views would cut no ice with our politicians (‘Don’t make a mash of it’, February 1-28, 2010). They are interested in making quick money and would submit to the wish of the companies that pay them.

Take the Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar for example. He not only supports Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, it seems Pawar is an ardent supporter of Bt soy as well. Or else, why lift all restrictions for importing thousands of tonnes of soy oil extracted from GM soybean? People have no way to know which food is derived from gmos as there won’t be any information from the companies.


The information in the editorial on Bt brinjal helps a common reader like me to make a careful choice. Unless the availability of modern technology in India is ensured to check the impact of GM food crops, the government should not allow their commercial cultivation.


As far as I recall, the price of brinjals had gone up sometime in the 1970s. Otherwise, I don’t remember brinjal being costly and out-of-our reach anytime in the history of India. This means the supply of this vegetable, which is part of our daily food habit, was never threatened. Where then is the need for Bt brinjal to secure crop production?

What baffles me more is that if, any day, Bt brinjal gets the government approval for commercial cultivation, it would violate the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to which India is a signatory. The protocol ordains that any agricultural product must not be genetically modified in its country of origin. Its aim is to preserve the genetic resources of the indigenous varieties.

S R Ganguli

The toxic levels in Bt brinjal is four times more than the accepted levels, thanks to the Cry1Ac toxin from the soil bacterium that has been incorporated in it. Because of this high toxicity level, Bt brinjal claims to be resistant to pests like the shoot borer.

But over a period of time, more virulent pests would replace the shoot borer. Then the effect of Bt brinjal would be neutralized. But the carcinogenic toxins would leave behind a legacy of health and environmental problems.

Moreover, in recent years the brinjal yield has gone up to as high as 300 tonnes per hectare a year. Since Bt brinjal offers no guarantee of a higher yield, why in the first place introduce it? We already have a lot of hybrid brinjals developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Is it not the duty of the government to propagate these varieties that pose no threat to consumers or the environment? Does anyone care?

K V S Krishna

The second green revolution that President Pratibha Singh Patil called for on the eve of Republic Day urged the nation to focus on increasing food production mainly by adopting GM crops.

Let us not forget what happened when India introduced Bt cotton. It helped increase production those areas that were well irrigated in Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana. But in the arid regions of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, farmers could not get a good yield as Bt cotton needs assured irrigation and double dose of fertilizers.

Farmers already bear the brunt of the first green revolution: extensive use of fertilizers coaxed plants to produce more but reduced soil fertility. The hybrid seeds initially increased yields but later came to a standstill. They required extensive irrigation and depleted the groundwater.

India can have a green revolution in its true sense if it promotes indigenous seeds and helps more and more farmers to switch to organic farming.

Dinkarnath O Garg

Message in the millet

The article on bajra ‘A peek into granny’s kitchen’ (February 16-28, 2010) took me to the day I spent in a tribal hamlet in Orissa’s Sundergarh district. People here have small landholdings which are suitable for growing only rainfed crops—like foxtail millets. There was a time villagers here harvested enough millet to last through the year. But millets is now obsolete in this village as the young do not like the coarse grain.

My hosts complained the children say only poor people have khichri or chapatis made of millet. They want to eat what they see on TV—instant noodles, for example. But given the absence of irrigation only millet will grow in the village. Caught in a dilemma villagers eat bpl rice. The family which could have been self-sufficient is not so because a wrong message percolated to the young generation.

Sipra nayak

Adapt to survive

The climate has been changing for millions of years. The Earth has weathered numerous cycles of climate change—warm periods alternating with colder periods or interglacial periods alternating with ice ages. For the last 10,000 years, we have been experiencing an interglacial warming period and the rate of warming has increased in the past 100 years. So even if humankind agrees to stop all forms of pollution, global warming would continue.

There is no stopping the natural cycles and with each cycle, a number of species would become extinct. The diversity we see today represents just 0.1 per cent of all the species that have ever lived over the last 3.8 billion years. That is why adapting to a warmer globe makes more sense than trying to prevent the inevitable.

John A Rorabacher

It is obvious to anyone with common sense that Barack Obama is just a table-thumper; the US is most likely going to be led by words, not action. Preaching is not going to reduce carbon emissions or the temperature. So bye-bye low-lying cities like Mumbai and Singapore, and countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives.

Mario Esteves

The US has reneged in the past; it is unlikely it will change its stance overnight (‘US and us,’ February 1-15). This, however, should not deter the willing partners from making efforts to mitigate climate change impact. To imagine a world based on equity is asking for too much but good work in that direction should be carried forward.

Ajit Bhartuar

Beyond noise regulations

I was happy to learn that the Centre has made noise regulations more stringent (‘Law made tough for noise makers’, February 1-15, 2010). But the new regulations would be effective only in metros; in small towns they would remain on paper. Police do not bother to take cognizance of high noise levels in these places. What can one expect of politicians who contribute to noise pollution over public address systems?

Another source of noise are auto-rickshaws. The racket made by the exhaust pipes are jarring, but a limit on this is not spelt out anywhere. I appeal to auto-makers to do something about the noise from exhaust pipes.


New lab for neutrino

With reference to the brief update on the neutrino observatory (‘Neutrino threat to Nilgiri wildlife, December 15, 2009), I did not really disagree with M Mohanraj on the suitability of the observatory site identified near Suriliyar falls except to say that the geological details of the site are still being studied. Our environmental assessment of Suruliyar indicated it would not be suitable for an observatory to study the electrically neutral particles since there is no proper access and the location is densely forested. We have since located an alternative site about 40 km north of Suruliyar where the environmental impact seems to be very low. We are still studying the place and talking to the villagers about the project. We hope this will be the right choice for the India-based Neutrino Observatory.

Institute of Mathematical Sciences,
Chennai, indu@imsc.res.in

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