Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is Bt brinjal good for you?

The Genetically Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) (can't we have more feliticiously named committees?) has approved the commercial cultivation of the humble brinjal, alias eggplant alias aubergine. Of course it still requires clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (where decisions will be based as much on politics as science -- perhaps more so). But the knives are out already and the habitual pulpit-thundering anti-technology naysayers like Vandana Shiva and others of her ilk, including scores of NGOs have predicted the usual gloom and doom scenario for Indian agriculture, particularly those cultivating this poor unloved vegetable.

Before we get to grips on this issue, let's get some incontrovertible facts out of the way.

  • This is not the first genetically engineered seed to be sanctioned for commercial cultivation. So called Bt cotton was the first (in 2002) which at least superficially has been an unqualified success with 50% better yields and is also grown in US, China, South Africa and Australia. However, since nobody eats cotton, the issues in this regard are different from those of eggplant and have more to do with commercial, social and economic aspects. (For example, the ability of the farmer to harvest the seeds from his own crop for the next planting, rather than buying it again from the market). Consumption of genetically modified foods bring up totally different issues altogether, some of which I will discuss below.
  • India is by no means a trendsetter in this regard. The US has 62.5 million ha under cultivation, Argentina has 21 million ha, Brazil has 15 million ha. India is now fourth in this list with 7.6 million ha, mostly growing cotton, followed by Canada and China. The crops grown are also more diverse -- canola, maize, soyabean, sugar beet, tomato and of course cotton.
  • It is not just professional objectors like Shiva who are against transgenic crops. Even respected molecular biologist P. M. Bhargava has added his voice to this chorus.
As far as I understand, the main reasons for the worry are the following, some of them only relevant in the Indian context.
  • A general belief that fiddling with the genetic structure of any food must have adverse consequences. There is unfortunately no proof of this yet -- it appears more a matter of faith. There have never been any reports of adverse health effects from the consumption of GM foods and by now the numbers of such consumers are significantly large.
  • The clearance by the GEAC was done hurriedly and based on data provided by the company which markets this product -- Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company) -- a subsidiary of the (evil?) multinational Monsanto. There was no independent verification of the field trials and even though Indian Governmental organisations like ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) and IIVR (Indian Insitute of Vegetable Research) were involved, the tests were superficial, the results rushed out in a hurry, and there was no transparency in the trial methodology. People like P. M. Bhargava have been particularly troubled by these aspects.
  • The whole GM food control, and therefore eventually all of Indian agriculture is coming more and more under the control of multinationals like Monsanto. This is an economic issue though, not a scientific one and in this post I want to address mostly the scientific issues.
So what are these scientific issues? (I am by no means an expert on this issue and most of the information in this post comes from an excellent article by The Harvard zoologist and biologist Richard Lewontin in the New York Review of Books. However that requires a subscription to the magazine though I could send you a copy on an individual basis to avoid copyright problems.)

Human beings have been genetically modifying organisms since the domestication of plants and animals. The usual way we have been doing it for tens of thousands of years is to selectively breed those variants of a plant which have desirable qualities like better productivity or resistance to pests. These are also only done between closely related species. Moreover, this kind of "mixing" can be a bit of a hit or miss affair and while improving one aspect (say disease resistance) one might also selectively propagate a low yielding variety of the plant. Modern genetic engineering instead selectively removes the DNA corresponding to a particular gene and inserts it into a recipient's cell so that it becomes part of the recipient's genome. The 'source' DNA can belong to a distant species and in that case the resultant variety produced is called a transgenic organism.

One of the most famous cases of genetic engineering (to which nobody seems to have ever objected) is the introduction of the human insulin gene into the genome of bacteria which, subsequently, after being grown in industrial quantities produce industrial quantities of insulin that keep millions of diabetics in good health.

One of the commonest uses of trangenic DNA is to make plants resistant to pests. The Bt protein is a powerful toxin made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringensis (hence Bt) and when the gene coding for this toxin is inserted into plants, they start producing these toxins and insects trying to feed on these plants ingest these and die. The obvious issue that exercises opponents of GM crops is the effect of these toxins on human beings when they eat GM varieties of fruits and vegetables. This, along with two other issues - the disruption of the natural environment of agriculture and the development of resistant pests are the three main problems with transgenic foods. (Incidentally it is a fact not often recognised that adverse toxic health effects can also arise during conventional breeding including crosses between species that normally do not cross in nature -- in fact there are several such examples in the history of agriculture referred to in Lewontin's article).

Large scale testing by independent agencies is the only way out of these problems. Unfortunately not just in India but even in advanced countries like the US, it is often true that the data on which 'safety assessment' is based are produced not by independent federal agencies but by the the very parties who are asking for approval to distribute the new variety. This is precisely what makes the propagation and large scale production of GM foods somewhat of a risky enterprise. Self-policing is hardly calculated to inspire confidence in the minds of the general public towards the safety of transgenic varieties of food. However it is also true that in the last two decades or so, there has not been a single proven case of adverse effects directly attributable to a transgenic crop. (A close call is mentioned in the Lewontin article). Hardened weed varieties are another undesirable by-product of this genetic manipulation.

If these were the only issues on which the GM crop antagonists were fighting the battle, it would be the action of a responsible opposition. Unfortunately the movement has almost taken on the contours of a belief system based on a hardened and pathological dislike for any technological intervention in natural processes. (It's not surprising that most of the opponents of the system are also opponents of the Green revolution in India that finally abolished large scalestarvation and frequent occurrences of famine in the country and allowed India to become self sufficient in food). The poster-person of this movement is of course the well known activist Vandana Shiva. Shiva, who we are told is a former physicist, blots her copybook by making remarks (in her famous book Stolen Harvest) that have nothing to do with science. For example, that seeds and biodiversity are "gifts from nature and their ancestors" and her opposition to genetic engineering is based on "a recognition in the Isho Upanishad that the universe is the creation of the Supreme Power meant for the benefit of all creation". Further on, in the book, she talks of "the smoke from the mustard oil used to light the deepavali lamp acts as an environmental purifier." (I should confess here that I have not read the book though the above are actual quotes from there. Perhaps she is being quoted out of context! And yet, if even her best arguments have to be buttressed by this kind of pseudo scientific mumbo-jumbo, it is not a surprise that people like her do not inspire much confidence amongst most scientists). As Lewontin reports, her book is full of unexplained claims about the nature of the farm economy in India, and how biotechnology destroys it and unanalysed or distorted scientific findings, some of which are explicitly referenced in the review. As Lewontin puts it, Stolen Harvest is an opportunity squandered.

And yet, many serious scientists have questioned the wisdom of hurrying through with the clearance for Bt brinjal in India, without conducting fully independent large scale field tests. GM crops if used appropriately can be of great benefit to poor farmers in countries like India but in order to be able to sell the idea to the people of the country the Government has to do more -- if not anything else, at least to make sure that field tests are not only done fairly but also seen to be so.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

I think the point is people distrust big corporations where our health is concerned, for good reasons. Monsanto has a chequered past, to put it mildly. Here's today's horror story from the other Great Satan, the pharma industry.

AmOK said...

RS is absolutely correct. Trust has to be earned and the business economics "require" that revenue has to be earned, even at the expense of trust. (This of course does not mean that BtB is bad - but if it is bad for anyone, that will be YOU!)

Thanks for the fine write-up, OLO.

Rahul Basu said...

Indeed, Monsanto's record since its Agent Orange days does not inspire confidence. However, I would think even if a more reliable and trustworthy company (??) were to do this, Governments should still commission independent tests - both the Indian and US Governments have the wherewithal to do it so why don't they?

Pharmaceutical companies are another kettle of fish altogether. They can do more immediate damage. Marcia Angell by the way has a series of articles in the NYRB over the years documenting this.

Ravi KR said...

Sadly I cannot actively participate in the future consequence of the BT Brinjal. My doctor has warned that it increases the chance of a kidney stone. So I would place my bets on a much higher goal - human cloning. In my journey downhill, I can perhaps get replacement parts. As the saying goes:
"when you pass your first stone
it is time to invest in a clone !!"

kapil said...

You seem to have missed an important point about the introduction of
GM Brinjal in India.

There are claims that India is the primary genetic source of
brinjal. Even supporters of GM crops generally seem to agree that the
introduction of genetic modifications at the source of the genetic
pool is fraught with risks that cannot as yet be calculated. It is
for this reason that GM rice and GM mango (for example) would not be
appropriate for cultivation in India.

"If all your eggplants are in one basket, then it does not make sense
to put anything there that may smash the basket!"

gaddeswarup said...

"Even supporters of GM crops generally seem to agree that the
introduction of genetic modifications at the source of the genetic pool is fraught with risks that cannot as yet be calculated."
Why is this? I thought that generally introducing genetically modified food without adequate testing is dangerous. What are the specific problems if India is really the source (From K.T. Acharya's writings, I find that brinjal has been used in India from time immemorial. Even Rama and Sita apparently ate brinjal. )

Rahul Basu said...

Kapil: Indeed Brinjal is native to India. However unless they are planted together in the same field there is no a priori danger of losing the original genetic strain. So these dangers as you put it are again hearsay which is the bane of all discussion in this field. There's just not enough data on these things - most conclusions are based on a 'belief' system. It's therefore a no-brainer to do proper testing as I have stressed in the post.

Of course it is possible that if farmers find the Bt brinjal giving better yields and being pest resistant, they might start using only the Bt strain. And the original strain will slowly die out. But that is fine as long as the Bt strain is shown to be without side-effects. There is no particular advantage to holding on to the original strains -- after all, many varieties of wild rice are no longer planted.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Indeed, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties of brinjal in India, versus two or three in the west. (Similarly, dozens of varieties of banana, versus one -- the Cavendish -- in the west.) And there is a market for all these varieties. So I don't see the diversity going way because of introduction of Bt brinjal.

It is possible of course, that if Bt brinjal is so much easier to grow for farmers and more popular with customers than existing kinds, it will wipe out all the existing varieties. I think that is unlikely, to say the least. We have more immediate things to worry about.

Rahul Basu said...

Culinarily speaking, India before the import of 'foreign' vegetables must have been a pretty sad place, if the high point of people's diet was the humble brinjal :(

gaddeswarup said...

I do not know whether brinjal was the high point, it is mentioned in most of the accounts. Possibly more meat. It does not seem too bad by the time of the Vijayanagara empire:
By that time we had idlis, which probably came via Indonesia. Dosai seems older. From this article
"Tamil Sangam poems and epics mention quite a few dishes, both as meals and as snacks. Meat, fowl and fish are written about but strangely enough, the vegetable spread in all these — be it Ramayana, Silappathigaram or Manimekalai, appears rather sparse. What were the vegetables that Lord Rama and Devi Sita ate? Or Kannagi, Kovalan, Madhavi and King Nedunchezian, for that matter? Alas, it was rather bland fare on this score — brinjals or eggplant, okra or ladies' fingers, drumsticks, gourds of various types, spinach and related greens, onion and ginger, and of course black pepper. Certainly not many that we eat today — potato, tomato, peas, tapioca, groundnut, chillies, cauliflower, cabbage and so forth; Dr. Achaya points out that all these are `exotic' imports, brought by the Portuguese and later."

robin dharmaratnam said...

I read with interest"Is Bt brinjal good for you?".can you email me Lewontin's review of Vandana shiva's article?my email: