New Delhi: Concerns raised by agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, cited by the government as among the reasons to put a halt to the release of Bt brinjal, will be impossible to address, according to the head of a state-run laboratory.
Controversial crop: Activists protest against Bt brinjal in Kolkata on 30 January. Agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan has called for tests to determine the long-term impact of the transgenic crop on human health. PTI
Swaminathan, 84, credited with the success of the Green Revolution of the 1960s that made India self-sufficient in food grains and currently a Rajya Sabha member, had recommended an initiative to collect and catalogue the existing genetic diversity of brinjal in India in a letter to environment minister Jairam Ramesh. He also called for tests to determine the long-term impact of transgenic brinjal on human health, before a decision was taken on its commercial release.
Ramesh had referred to the points raised by Swaminathan when announcing the decision to impose the indefinite moratorium.
Swaminathan had recommended that the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) study the chronic (long-term) effects of Bt brinjal on human health.
NIN director B. Sesikaran now says the veteran scientist’s suggestions, publicized by Ramesh in a 20-page report, can’t be implemented.
“It’s not possible. You can’t test anything on human beings unless it’s been validated on lower mammals such as rats and approved for commercial cultivation,” Sesikaran said in an interview. “Any such tests would be illegal.”
Swaminathan said he held several discussions with Ramesh and that the central thrust of his discussions was to put in place an independent regulator. “I haven’t seen Jairam’s note. So I’m not sure what he has written. However, I’d suggested that there be long-term tests undertaken that includes soliciting volunteers and analysing the impact of Bt foods on humans,” he said over the phone. “This could take place akin to drug trials, but all this really is up to an independent regulator.”
The moratorium earlier this month effectively ruled out the entry of other genetically modified food crops that could have come in through the door opened by the transgenic variety of the vegetable, also known as eggplant or aubergine.
Ramesh said that stiff opposition from state governments, lack of consensus among the scientific community and negative public sentiment, largely drummed up by farmer and activist groups, had prompted the moratorium.
Sesikaran is also a member of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), a committee constituted by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). The RCGM and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, constitutionally mandated to clear genetically engineered products, had approved Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation.
Ramesh had written to 50 Indian and foreign scientists for comments and had several discussions with Swaminathan.
The eponymous M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, which was set up by the scientist, also works on transgenic technology, partly funded by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the DBT, in specifically trying to incorporate genes from mangroves into rice, to increase drought resistance and raise its tolerance to salinity.
Some of the other measures mooted by Swaminathan are already in practice. This includes the suggestion that the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) in New Delhi and the National Innovation Foundation, Ahmedabad, “collect, catalogue and conserve the existing genetic variability in brinjal”.
Such a collection already exists and the NBPGR has at least 3,000 accessions that includes wild varieties, as well as hybrids developed by farmers, said S.K. Sharma, director of the institute.
“We’ve been doing this over several years and the last systematic survey was done in 2005, under a World Bank funded project,” Sharma said. “Our collection is the most extensive among such collections in the country. But every few years, we try to visit new areas and collect more. So it’s a continuous process.”
Swaminathan said he was aware of the activities of the NBPGR.
The brinjal in question, which contains a gene artificially introduced into its genome, mainly from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, has been developed by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, University of Dharwad, under a free licence from Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd (Mahyco).
Among other firms, Monsanto Inc., which owns a 26% stake in Mahyco, also has technologies for introducing the Bt gene in other food crops including rice, maize and wheat.
“Bt brinjal, by itself, may not be a big market. However, if it’s proved safe for consumption, it could make people more acceptable of GM foods. So, it could open the door to other crops such as rice,” said P. Ananda Kumar, senior scientist, Indian Agricultural Research Institute.
On 9 February, Ramesh asked the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to engage with scientists and civil society groups to draw up fresh protocols for additional tests. “Under no circumstances should there be any hurry or rush,” Ramesh said. “The moratorium will continue for as long as it is needed to establish public trust and confidence.”