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Do you want to be a Lab Rat?

If not, stop Bt Brinjal: assert your right to safe food & food choices

By Kavitha Kuruganti,

Genetically Modified (GM) foods are created unnaturally by taking genes from unrelated organisms and inserting them into the cells of our food plants like brinjal, rice, bhindi, tomato, cauliflower, potato etc. The science and technology of Genetic Engineering is imprecise and irreversible and is documented to cause many health and environmental impacts.

In India, the first GM food crop—Bt Brinjal (which is incidentally the first ever such GM vegetable crop with the toxic Bt gene in it, anywhere in the world, to be eaten more or less directly by Indians if approved) — devel- oped by large profit-seeking agri-business corporations, has been cleared hastily for commercial use by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in a closed-door manner without sound scientific evidence to prove its safety on October 14th 2009. Bt Brinjal has been created to get the brinjal plant to produce a poison inside the plant to kill some pests that attack the crop – the claim is that farmers would not have to spray so much of chemical pesticides in farming with the use of seeds like Bt Brinjal. What is ironical however is that it is the same business players who have made and who continue to make profits out of chemical pesticides that talk about GM seeds today. When chemical pesticides were brought in a few decades ago, they claimed that pesti- cides will not cause any harm to any organism other than the target pest. However, we now know that this is a lie. Today, they again claim that GM seeds will not harm any organism apart from the target pest – do you want to believe them, knowing that this is in fact an irreversible technology with seeds having their own life and self- propagating ways in nature?

[Photo by Tehelka]

Brinjal has primarily originated in the Indian sub-continent. Nowhere else in the world has a crop been allowed to be genetically modified in its centre of origin and diversity. There are references in classical texts that tell us that brinjal used to be the favorite dish of Lord Krishna, for instance. Brinjal and plants of related species are used extensively in Ayurveda and Siddha and is also documented to have medicinal properties, used for treatment of Diabetes Type B etc. The entry of Bt Brinjal will thus endanger the healing capacity of Indian medicinal systems.

M/s Mahyco, the Indian partner of the world’s largest seed company called Monsanto, has been allowed to develop Bt Brinjal in India on claims of pest tolerance to a set of pests. Monsanto is infamous in the world for its anti-farmer operations, including jailing and suing American farmers for saving their own seed! Now, they are seeking to control the agriculture of this country through the means of GM seeds. In the case of Bt Cotton, the only allowed GM crop in India, Monsanto is reported to have made crores of rupees of profits by charging exorbi-tant royalties from poor, debt-ridden Indian farmers, many of whom were left with no option but to commit suicide. It is naïve to believe that these companies are acting in our best interests, whatever their stated claims.

The company has been allowed to do open air field trials from 2004 onwards even though biosafety has not been proven till date. In the process of field trials, Mahyco has also been documented with serious violations of biosafety norms under EPA. In 2007, despite massive public resistance, an expert committee set up by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) recommended that Bt Brinjal be allowed for large scale field trial.

Both in terms of academic literature and field level practice, it has been proven time and again that pest management in Brinjal is quite possible, affordable and profitable for farmers through non-chemical and non-GM means and through ecological practices. Despite the fact that Dr Pushpa Bhargava, Supreme Court appointee to the GEAC, recommending that GMOs should be considered only if no other options exist, Bt Brinjal is being projected as a need for the farmers of the country disregarding other safer options.

For assessing the implications of Bt Brinjal, the regulators had asked the crop developer to undertake some testing and to produce data – these tests are not long term, comprehensive in their assessment or indepen- dent. Decision-making has been happening only on the basis of company-produced data when it obviously has a vested interest in the matter. Mahyco was asked to perform some toxicity and allergenicity tests for biosafety ssessment on the health front (in addition to some tests for environmental biosafety and for assessing the impact of the Bt Brinjal on the target insects). The biosafety data from these tests was made public by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in August 2008 after a protracted struggle under Right to Information Act and in a Supreme Court PIL. The fight for this data has been a typical case of public safety vs. commercial interest, with the company seeking to withhold information from the public.

No independent research or independent analysis has been taken up by any concerned Ministry with their own set of experts with regard to Bt Brinjal. However, after independent scientists from all over the world analysed Mahyco’s Bt Brinjal biosafety data and pointed out to problems and concluded that it is unsafe for consumption, an Expert Committee (EC2) was set up by the GEAC which, after two sittings, claimed that Bt Brinjal is safe and ready for commercial cultivation. As various civil society groups protested against the constitution of the EC2, its mandate, its functioning and its so-called findings, the Minister for Environment & Forests has now announced a democratic and transparent process by which the final decision on Bt Brinjal will be taken by February 2010.

If Bt Brinjal is allowed into the country, that will be the end of choice for you. Your right to know what you are eating will be violated. Normal brinjal and Bt Brinjal will look the same by appearance and you will not be able to exercise your informed choice of not eating Bt Brinjal. Now is the time for each one of us to exercise our basic rights to safe food and food of our choice and show our citizenship by writing to the Prime Minister and the Environment Minister of the Government of India. Further, it is also important to get state governments to exercise their constitutional authority over Agriculture and Health (these are State Subjects) by getting them to take a stand in favor of ordinary citizens and their sustainable livelihoods and not on the side of profit-hungry corporations.

“You can get more information and send a petition to the Prime Minister on this subject, at www.iamnolabrat.com”.

(Kavitha Kuruganti has been working on issues related to sustainable agriculture for more than fifteen years now.)

Courtsey: Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee India