Trouble on the plate

Written by Vandana Shiva | Updated: Oct 26 2009, 05:23am hrs
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment in India, the statutory body for biosafety regulation, approved the commercialisation of Bt brinjal on October 14, 2009, in spite of its threat to independent science, public health, farmers survival, the environment, and democracy. Members of the expert panel that approved the Bt brinjal for biosafety are themselves involved in research on Bt brinjal. This creates a major crisis for the integrity of science. Such conflict of interest has no place in any regulatory system, least of all in biosafety regulation which is intended to avoid harm to public health and the environment from genetically engineered organisms.

Genetically engineered (GE) Bt crops such as Bt cotton and Bt brinjal have a gene for producing Bt toxins from a soil bacteria bacillus thuringensis. Unscientific biosafety assessments rest on the false assumption of substantial equivalence which treats GE organisms as equal to the naturally occurring organism. This assumption is false because while the naturally occurring Bt in the soil organism is an endotoxin and needs to be processed in the gut of the caterpillar family, the transgene (or GE) Bt engineered into plants is a ready-made, active toxin. It is therefore toxic not just to the bollworm and other caterpillar pests, but to non-target species, including mammals and micro-organisms. Reports on animal deaths from Andhra Pradesh as a result of feeding on Bt cotton need to be studied in depth because what is killing animals is also a threat to humans.

Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology undertook a survey to compare soils on which Bt cotton had been grown with those without Bt cotton soils. Beneficial soil organisms, such as bacteria that decompose biomass and enzymes that fix nitrogen had decreased by 20%. No such study has been done by Monsanto Mahyco, the company introducing Bt brinjal and cotton. While the Bt brinjal used a hybrid of two toxins, Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac, the tests done by the company used only Cry1Ac proteins. This is totally unscientific. Further the toxicity tests were restricted to only 90 days, which do not show long-term impacts, such as the risks of cancers and tumors. Bt brinjal contains 16-17 mg/kg of Bt insecticide. It is a recipe for feeding Indian citizens poison. Bt brinjal also has an antibiotic resistance marker which induces resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin. This could be a public disaster since it could increase antibiotic resistance.

Bt brinjal is based on the same toxin as the one used in Bt cotton. The only difference is that we eat brinjal, but not cotton (though Bt cotton seed has been blended with edible oils without traceability and labeling). We have seven years experience of commercial application and four years of field tests with Bt cotton. The socio-economic and ecological impact is there to see.

India used to have 1,500 cotton varieties. Now you can go to Vidharbha and find only Bt cotton (Bollgard) sold under names of different companies licensed by Monsanto. India is a centre of diversity of brinjal with thousands of varieties. Just as the Bt cotton displaced indigenous cotton varieties, Bt brinjal will displace indigenous brinjal varieties, leading to a severe loss of biodiversity. Since biodiversity is natures and farmers capital, the replacement of local seeds with genetically engineered seeds patented by Monsanto-Mahyco will have serious socio-economic impact on farmers. Two lakh farmers have committed suicide in India in the last decade. Most of these suicides are concentrated in the Bt cotton areas. Vidharbha with the highest suicides (4,000 per year) also has the largest area under Bt cotton.

If small vegetable farmers become trapped in debt due to Bt brinjal just as cotton farmers became trapped in debt due to Bt cotton, the epidemic of farmer suicides will increase. How many millions of farmers does Monsanto-Mahyco want to push to suicide to harvest super profits

Just on the ground of farmer suicides and indebtedness, GE crops should be banned in India. India is a land of small farmers. The only reason corporations are genetically engineered crops is because they can take patents and claim intellectual property rights to collect royalties from farmers. But the super profits of the companies are based on robbing the farmers of their incomes and their lives.

The expert group has argued that Bt brinjal is safe because it provides an alternative to pesticides. This is a false argument for two reasons. Firstly, a toxic sprayed a few times from outside the plant is a lesser hazard than a toxic produced in the plant, all the time by every cell. Further, when pesticides are found to be hazardous they can be banned. However, a toxic GE plant released into the environment can never be recalled.

Secondly, the expert group totally ignores the real alternative to pesticides-organic farming. Navdanya produces organic vegetables, including diverse varieties of brinjal, without pesticides and toxins, and our farmers have no pest problems. Indian farmers and consumers need more organic farming-not toxic pesticides, nor toxic Bt brinjal.

The environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, has assured the country that Bt brinjal will not be commercialised in a rush on the basis of the GEAC approval. In January and February he is inviting inputs from all interested parties, both those for and those against GE crops. We welcome this democratic input. I would also call on the minister to make the basic assessment as an assessment between organic farming and GE. This assessment should include socio-economic aspects as well as ecological and public health dimensions. The introduction of Bt brinjal, the first GE food in the Indian diet, will open the floodgates to other GE foods that are under experimentation-okhra, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard, chick pea, potato, rice, amaranth, and many more. Our food decisions cannot be left to biased and compromised experts. Food democracy demands that every citizen gets involved. It also demands that regulatory agencies are independent of commercial interests, and put the public interest above corporate interests and profits.

The writer is Director and founder of, Navdanya