Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Indian Bt Brinjal dilemma

The debate over the approval of Bt brinjal by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has gone to the next level, with the consultation being held throughout India by engaging different stakeholders under the able headship of Mr Jairam Ramesh. But the consultation faced open revolts with the wide protests by NGOs and even in some cases by the scientific fraternity. Already the Kolkata and Bhubaneshwar consultations faced the ire of the protestors and was closed without any results. Several groups have expressed concern and dissatisfaction over the way in which the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee conducted and approved Bt brinjal field trials. These groups have called for tests by an independent lab.

Dr MS Swaminathan also felt for the need of a regulatory mechanism that inspires people's confidence and genetically engineered foods hold great promise for the future, especially if India intends to cut its hunger rate by half by 2015. In the recently concluded 97th science Congress, PM Dr. Manmohan Singh also expressed his concerns over the safety issues of GM foods and reiterated that safety must be given full weight, with appropriate regulator control based on strictly scientific criteria.

So, it seems just like another go around phenomenon. Why not we can go to basics and opt for the health, safety and other concerns raised? There are clear indications that people are still not ready for its acceptance without proper health and safety assurances. Just releasing a variety/ hybrid is of no use, if it doesn’t reach the end consumers at affordable rates and is proved of no damage to the human / any other creatures’ health, physiological activity and the ecosystem at large.

The data on safety and efficacy has been examined by 30 scientists who are members of the review committee on genetic manipulation and also the GEAC. The data is sufficient to allay safety and environment concerns, as claimed by the government. But one of the member Dr. P.M. Bhargava furiously revolted by noting that the report of Expert Committee II headed by Arjula R. Reddy, which recommended the approval of Bt Brinjal was full of lies and absurdities, a ludicrous document that brought down Indian science in front of the whole world. And one which looked like it had been written by the public relations officer of the Mahyco-Monsanto collaboration.

It was obvious from the Bt brinjal debate that Indians do not trust the current regulatory structure. Kerala, Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have already decided to keep Bt brinjal out. It was objected to even by former health minister Anbumani Ramadoss. But, Mr Ramesh has given assurance that no decision on Bt brinjal would be taken in a haste. He promised to arrive at a decision by February 20 only after conducting hearings in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Nagpur and Chandigarh. In the situation, when researchers’ themselves are not well assured and confident of the Bt Brinjal’s safety aspect, then how could we imagine its approval by the governing and other concerned departments?

After lot of discussions, debates out of research can only make sure/ convince the public/ consumers that, it is clean for environment and safe for humans. Government has to ensure that the decision due next month on going ahead with commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal should not be dismissed without a fair trial. As, in India even the murderer like, Kasab of 9/11 gets the trial. Govt, ICAR and corporates are in for its haste release, which may cause havoc to the health of general public and environment also.

With the widespread protests and debate over the release of Bt brinjal, even the Apex court has asked the government to come clean on the health and environmental effects of the GM food crop. The Supreme Court also wants to know from the Centre to spell out the measures taken to prevent contamination of indigenous crops varieties by open field trials of the Bt brinjal crops. Mr Jairam Ramesh, the Environment and Forests Minister expressed that India needs an autonomous bio-technology regulatory authority and an independent laboratory to conduct various tests.

Bt cotton, too, faced similar opposition a few years ago but today, the country is the largest producer of cotton. Besides, the soil bacterium has been around for many years, but here the situation is not the same as Brinjal being the food crop and a native to Indian subcontinent with unimaginable levels of diversity and consumption pattern. Tackling the debate on scientific basis is ok, other than on the basis of unfounded fears and a fear psychosis. Health and safety issues have to be well taken care of, before the unknown plunge. As there would not be U-turn, once it is introduced and reaches the farmer’s field.

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