Though commercial release of genetically modified brinjal has been put on hold, documents made public by the government suggest a proposed study to assess the vegetable’s need and possible socio-economic impact on farmers was never done.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests, according to documents available on its website, had set up a Bt Brinjal Technical Review Committee early in 2007. The committee evaluated numerous comments from various stakeholders vis-a-vis the biosafety data generated by Mahyco — the company which developed Bt Brinjal.
The committee recognised the need of a large scale socio-economic impact assessment study and set up a three-member sub committee to evaluate whether there was any ground-level requirement for the genetically modified brinjal at all.
In October 2007, the sub-committee met in Varanasi and developed a detailed methodology for the study, which was to be done by institutions of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR Institutions) with government funding.
“But the (socio-economic assessment) study was never commissioned nor done,” S. Parasuraman, one of the members of the sub committee and the director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, wrote in a communication sent to Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.
While announcing the moratorium on the commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal, Mr. Ramesh said there was no “tearing hurry” to make it the country’s first GM food crop.
Several state government, NGOs, farmers’ associations and scientists have also opposed the crop’s commercial introduction, approved by the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) in October last year.
Bt Brinjal is a genetically-modified vegetable which is infused with Cry1Ac gene from a bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to make the plant resistant to the fruit and shoot borers and certain pests. Some scientists have been opposing it, arguing that the genes were toxic and would affect the health of the consumers.
In his letter, Mr. Parasuraman said the socio-economic assessment submitted by the developers of the GM brinjal to the ministry was defective in its methodology. “All the biosafety/other studies conducted by or for Mahyco must be made public in their complete form — the entire report, and not just the summaries.
“These studies must be peer-reviewed and subject to evaluation by external experts. The regulators, in consultations with NGOs, must appoint a non-interested third party expert to conduct independent studies on Bt Brinjal,” Mr. Parasuram said.
Mahyco had made pubic an abstract of its biosafety studies of Bt Brinjal to back that the vegetable is safe to eat and economically viable for farmers. Mahyco has also been arguing that a normal farmer sprays pesticide at least 50 to 80 times in the entire lifecycle of a brinjal crop, and these toxins are transferred to consumers.
The company has been maintaining that Bt Brinjal affects only the pests and not humans. However, Mr. Parasuraman argued that before it was released for commercial cultivation, a comparative analysis of the costs of production of the GM crops and its impacts on the potential market value should be carried out.
Noted agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan had also suggested that the Environment Ministry carry out a careful study on the impacts of Bt Brinjal on human health. The National Institute of Nutrition and Central Food Technology Research Institute should “undertake a careful study of the chronic effects of Bt brinjal on human health. This is analogous to the studies carried out on the impact of tobacco smoking on the incidence of lung cancer in humans,” Mr. Swaminathan wrote in his communication to the Ministry.
He also welcomed the government’s moratorium on the crop and said: “I think it is a wise decision. It is appropriate to look at the problems carefully. The regulatory system has to be credible, transparent and effective”.
Mr. Swaminathan said the Environment Minister would like to utilise the time period for studies and tests which should be completely shared with the public. “They have some benefits also. How we use it is the issue,” he added.
P.M. Bhargava, the Supreme Court nominee on GEAC, wanted an institutional set-up for the tests to be carried out on Bt Brinjal. The tests would be carried out on animals and in some cases, even monkeys. “I have personally never opposed Bt Brinjal,” he said but maintained that tests have to be carried out for long-term health effects.
Meanwhile, a section of crop scientists have argued that the brinjal is safe for cultivation.
In his communication to the Ministry, J. Nagaraju, a scientist at Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad, said every modern development has its own potential risks and benefits, but in the case of Bt Brinjal, risks are blown out of proportion. “A small proportion of people with preconceived ideas should not be allowed to prevent the flow of scientific benefits to the society at large. It is like killing the baby before it is being born! This way we will be doing great disservice to the society“.
Prof G. Padmanabhan, former Director of the Indian Institute of Science, said: “I do believe it is safe, but I do not buy this environment argument...to think that introducing a couple of genes will change the bio-diversity, I don’t buy this argument”.