Gargi Parsai

Farmer unaware of trial being conducted

Centre for Sustainable Agriculture for ban on all GM food trialsTrial raises several questions of ethics and concerns

NEW DELHI: After Greenpeace-India, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) is protesting field trials of genetically modified (GM) foods in parts of the country, the latest being Bt trials on okra and brinjal on fields in Andhra Pradesh. It has demanded a ban on all GM food trials.

The CSA says that a farmer did not even know there was a Bt trial of brinjal crop on his field. His family - and probably others in the area - unknowingly consumed the yet-to-be-tested Bt brinjal without quite knowing its properties or side effects. The CSA studied the field trial of Bt okra (`bindi' or lady's finger) by the Maharashtra-based Mahyco Company at Narakoduru village of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh. A team comprising Gangadhar Vagmare, Ramprasad and Kavitha Kuruganti uncovered the trial on December 19 on the field of Mr. Rao.

Such trials in almost all cases were shrouded in secrecy, the report said.

The team learnt that this transgenic variety was being apparently developed to create resistance in the okra plant to fruit and shoot borer pests (Earias) by inserting a Bt gene called Cry1Ac. Apparently, approvals for "limited field trials" on Bt Okra were accorded by the Department of Biotechnology to Mahyco in 2003-04. However, such an approval is not known to be repeated for 2004 or 2005.

The report said the limited trial is being conducted on plot leased from the farmer by Mahyco. Despite pesticide sprays the plants were riddled with pests, including bacterial leaf spot, cercospora leaf spot, yellow vein mosaic, spotted bollworm, powdery mildew, spodoptera, jassids, aphids and white fly. It was not clear which plot consisted of what variety although the refuge/border lines showed better growth and fruiting than the entries. The trial has raised questions of ethics and concerns: First, the farmer was not informed that this was a transgenic crop trial. Even the Field Assistant of the company was not aware of the trial when it began.

According to Ms. Kavitha, the farmer was unaware about who was conducting the trials.

His only point of contact was with a temporary employee of Mahyco whose contract has been terminated from December 15 and there have been no visits after that. This was soon after a team of university scientists visited the plot. "The farmer does not know what to do with the crop on his plot. He is not sure whether he can uproot the standing crop as it belongs to the company.

There is no liability-fixing mechanism in case of crop failure and in case of other hazards emerging from the trial," she said. The person employed by Mahyco was reported to be selling off the "untested'' vegetables from this plot in the Guntur market and contaminating the supply chain. This, despite biosafety guidelines that say that all material from the field trials should be destroyed by burning.

The study highlights the fact whether India needs GM foods, whereas worldwide the pipeline of GM crops is drying. Many recent studies from across the world have strongly reinforced fears about the dangers of GM foods. Statistics available worldwide show that the number of field trials of GM crops began declining in 2003.