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New concern over Bt brinjal plans

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Mahesh Bhatt at a Coalition for a GM-free India event in Bangalore on Saturday. To left is Sangita Sharma.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Mahesh Bhatt at a Coalition for a GM-free India event in Bangalore on Saturday. To left is Sangita Sharma.

Ananth Krishnan

Consumer groups fret over impact of genetically modified crop

MUMBAI: Consumer groups are concerned about exposing Indian consumers to genetically modified Bt brinjal, even as the government is considering grant of approval to Mahyco to commercially launch the GM food this year.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the national regulatory authority for GM foods, has set up a special committee to study Mahyco’s biosafety data from nine years of research on Bt brinjal. It is set to give its verdict soon.

According to Mahyco, which is part-owned by American biotech giant Monsanto, Bt brinjal will increase yields for farmers, reduce the need for pesticide use by 70 per cent and pose no health safety hazards. Anti-GM groups say the company’s claims have not been independently verified and warn that Bt brinjal could pose risks to human health and the environment.

An independent study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini released in January 2009 has strengthened their claims, finding that Bt brinjal produces a protein that could induce resistance to the widely-used antibiotic kanamycin. Professor Seralini also noted “numerous significant differences” in feeding trials with non-Bt controls — for instance, in goats fed with Bt brinjal, the time taken to produce the hormone prothrombin was modified, and in rabbits, a reduction in consumption was observed.

B.S. Parsheera, Chairman of the GEAC and Additional Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, told The Hindu that the GEAC’s special committee would assess both Mahyco’s data and Professor Seralini’s study before coming up with its recommendations. He did not say when a decision would likely be announced.

The debate between biotech companies and the anti-GM lobby has been raging ever since Mahyco was given permission to conduct Bt brinjal field trials five years ago.

Usha Barwale Zehr, joint director (research) at Mahyco, said agricultural scientists and experts from the government had “overseen every step of the process” to ensure safety.

Ms. Zehr said data from Mahyco’s studies showed that “Bt brinjal behaves the same as the non-Bt or conventional brinjal except for providing the added tolerance to the target pest.”

Groups opposed to the introduction of GM foods say there has not been adequate independent testing to verify the results of Mahyco’s research. “We believe there are many risks associated with Bt brinjal that need to be tested,” said Sridevi Lakshmikutty of the Coalition for a GM-free India. “The GEAC is relying on data from Mahyco, and the data have not been checked by an independent source.”

Food safety experts worry that while the likelihood of Bt brinjal finding its way to supermarkets around India before the end of the year is high, the level of public awareness about the facts of the GM debate is still low.

“There is a great possibility that Bt brinjal will be on all our tables this year,” said food policy analyst Devinder Sharma. “But there are still many questions that need to be asked. Can we allow the company’s data to be accepted? And first of all, do we even need Bt brinjal? Why take a risk? Where is the crisis in brinjal production that necessitates it? No one is asking these questions.”

Documentary released

In an effort to bring the GM debate — so far largely confined to academic circles and consumer rights groups — to the attention of the larger public, Mumbai-based filmmakers Mahesh Bhatt and Ajay Kanchan last week released a documentary on the subject, called “Poison on the Platter.” “We want to highlight the fact that you cannot tamper with Mother Nature without sensitising the nation first,” Mr. Bhatt said.

Mr. Kanchan said copies of the 30-minute film would be circulated among consumer groups and in universities to raise public awareness about the GM debate. “The problem is [that] while there is so much information available, there is still so much ignorance about the issue. Part of it is the language is so complicated, and we’re hoping this film will change that,” he said.

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