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Panel Ignored Bt Cotton Toxicity Evidence'

NEW DELHI: While Bt brinjal is at an advanced stage of being cleared for commercial cultivation, a Supreme Court nominee to the regulatory body has come up with a "major argument" to suspend the existing cultivation of Bt cotton due to bio-safety concerns about genetically modified crops.

Molecular scientist P M Bhargava, who was appointed three months ago at the instance of SC as a special invitee to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), found that the regulator had ignored evidence of toxicity in Bt cotton leading to the death of hundreds of sheep in Andhra Pradesh.

In a letter to GEAC dated May 14, Bhargava said that the three documents relied upon by the regulator "contradict ... unequivocally" its own claim that the mortality of sheep might be due to pesticide residues rather than Bt toxin.

According to the minutes of the GEAC meeting held on April 2, other members told Bhargava that the studies commissioned by them "indicate that the sheep deaths might be due to high content of nitrates/nitrites, residues of hydrocyanide (HCN) and organophosphates which are common ingredients of pesticides used during cotton cultivation and not those of Bt toxin."

But the three expert reports given to Bhargava subsequently, in a bid to justify GEAC's clean chit to Bt cotton, have turned out to be, in his opinion, evidence strongly suggesting "the possibility or even the probability" of Bt cotton causing the death of sheep which had grazed on that crop.

Dept of Animal Husbandry, govt of AP, in its letter dated May 9, 2007, admitted that "bio-safety studies were not taken up in sheep and also trials did not include continuous grazing/feeding of complete Bt cotton plants to animals."

It also said that the samples were "negative for HCN, Nitrates, Nitrites, Alkaloids and Glycocides." The state government therefore advised shepherds "not to graze their animals in harvested Bt cotton fields till the definite cause is established."

Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izatnagar, Uttar Pradesh, in its letter dated June 18, 2007, said, "Bt cotton samples tested in the Toxicology Laboratory of this centre showed absence of HCN, Nitrate/Nitrite, Alkaloids and Glycocides."

Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati, wrote to GEAC that "the bio-safety studies on grazing Bt cotton crop by sheep are lacking."

In keeping with his SC-given mandate of lending more transparency to GEAC's functioning, Bhargava called for a review of its assertion that the rise in sheep mortality had nothing to do with Bt cotton. He said the three reports cited by GEAC "underscore the fact that no serious studies to rule this out have been done so far.

This would be a major argument to suspend all cultivation of Bt cotton until we have definitive data on the toxicity of Bt plants to animals on field."

Founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Bhargava was a member of the Knowledge Commission set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In February, the Supreme Court directed his appointment to GEAC along with another scientist, M S Swaminathan, on a PIL filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues alleging that the regulatory system for GM crops was skewed in favour of multinational companies to the detriment of bio-safety.