Mahycos Bt brinjal encounters health safety roadblocks

Written by ASHOK B SHARMA | New Delhi | Updated: Jan 20 2009, 04:40am hrs
The commercial release of Mahyco's Bt brinjal has run into rough weather, with the Union health ministry and consumers' organisations questioning about the health safety aspect. In the 91st meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee GEAC), the representative from the health ministry raised the issue of health safety on the basis of some international studies.

The Union health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss has also recently taken cognisance of the developments, after pressures from NGOs and farmers' organisations. The Supreme Court's nominee and noted biotechnologist Pushpa M Bhargava has been equally critical of GEAC's hurry to release GM food crops without adequate bio-safety studies. Mahyco, however, continues to claim absolute safety of its product.

The NGOs campaign against the release of Bt binjal has been fuelled by global studies questioning the health and bio-safety generated by developer Mahyco, which has borrowed the technology from the US seed multinational Monsanto. The first such study to come in recent times was that by a team headed by Gilles-Eric Sralini of the France-based Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN). This study is followed by that of the Australia-based Institute of Health and Environmental Research Inc (IHER).

Judy Carman and her team at IHER found that the type of studies undertaken by Mahyco were insufficient to prove the health safety of Bt brinjal. The study alleged that there have been no reproductive studies and the studies that have been done, often used animals and measurements that were inappropriate or insufficient measures of human health.

The methodology and results were often insufficiently reported to be able to determine what the studies were actually measuring or how various variables were measured.

Included in this, the study said that the statistical results have not been reported to a suitable standard. For example, means, standard deviations, and p-values, which would be required for any peer-reviewed scientific journal, were not done. The sample sizes were insufficient to be able to find statistical difference for many measurements even if real clinical differences were occurring between groups. Indeed, much of the research presented by Mahyco could be regarded as being burdened with Type II error. This type of statistical error occurs when sample sizes are so low that the study cannot realistically be expected to find a difference between groups of animals even if clinical differences were occurring, the study said.

The study concluded that in such a situation, Bt brinjal was unsafe for human consumption and would expose 1.15 billion Indians to health hazards, particularly children, expectant mothers and elderly persons. Cancer, autoimmune problems, heart diseases, diabetes, or infectious diseases may be the outcome.

The pro-GMO lobby has, however, raised the issue that food and environmental security can be achieved, by citing the Environmental Resource Indicators report recently released at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting by Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.