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By Juli and Vivek Cariappa, Krac-a-Dawna Organic Farm, H.D. Kote

The threat of Bt Brinjal destroying my joy of eating sambar or vangibath or Baigan bartha is really dwelling on my mind. Because, the truth is, I will not be able to bite into a brinjal, in any form, or savour its creamy insides and then swallow it, without some apprehension. There is no way to tell the difference! I mean it could be genetically engineered Bt Brinjal and there is a chance that it could shorten my life.

It angers me that this simple, humble and highly nutritious vegetable is being played about within the labs of public-funded Universities. The worst part is that the scientists doing this work think they are doing something "good" and "in public interest." How could they be so mistaken to think that we would want them to mess around with nature's perfect multitude of Brinjal varieties that exist in India?

It is claimed that Brinjal is having serious problems with insect infestation and the reason for introducing the Bt Brinjal is to help the farmers. As a farmer of 25 years who has studied soil structure, microbial/mycological life and their interdependent relationships to plant health and disease, I can tell you that pest problems are not the result of susceptible traditional varieties but are indeed due to a weakened soil health resulting from improper agricultural pra-ctices which have been promoted by these very same Agri-Universities and pesticide companies who are now proposing the use of Genetic Engineering (GE) in our farming! Traditional varieties of Brinjal would never have survived since the Vijayanagar Empire. If they were pest ridden, we would have lost them a long time ago!

Another little known fact is that Brinjal is just the first on the list of GE foods that are being targetted by trans-national bio-tech industry for the Indian market (even our hardy ragi and jowar are on this list). Dressed in the guise of "helping the poor Indian farmer" and "reducing the use of pesticides for the benefit of the Indian consumer and the environment," the bio-tech industry backed by huge funding from the US (ABSP-II), thinks that they can fool us into believing that it is better to eat GE food, no matter what the personal and national cost may be.

The fact is, these interests have EVERYTHING to gain by taking over the Indian food basket. Huge profits in seeds and accessories to the GE cultivation package (which include some of the most insidious herbicides like round-up — a disguised version of Agent Orange, the chemical weapon used in the Vietnam war): the world's second largest farming community paying royalties to the seed companies with every packet of seed we buy: one billion++ potential consumers of food and processed products (not to mention the animal feed business) and a nation that could become an utterly dependent bonded slave of transnational seed companies. This will happen when we begin to use GE seeds beca-use by their very use, GE traits will be expressed in all our traditional varieties and wild relatives of these plants that represent our national heritage going back thousands of years.

What, after all, could be more Indian than the food we eat? Our local foods and food habits change every few 100kms because we are blessed with an ever-adapting plant ecology which changes subtly according to agro-climatic variations and results in a biodiversity that defies the imagination and definitely delights the palate!

But how? You might ask does the genetic engineering of, say, the Brinjal affect our entire food basket? First of all, brinjal belongs to a botanical family that is sometimes called the Potato family or Solanaceae. Commonly eaten food crops like chilly, capsicum, tomato and potato all come within this family. Cross-pollination may or may not occur among them (although there is a likelihood in an environment that is rich in wild pollinators like bees, butterflies, wasps, other insects and birds), but there are other ways to effect genetic contamination. Keeping in mind that a genetically modified seed is inherently less stable as it is a "construct" and not a naturally occurring time-tested seed as a landrace seed; we cannot determine how it will behave with neighbouring plants.

GE technology is path breaking as it is the first time in the history of mankind, as a species, that science has crossed/broken the species barrier. We have taken on the mantle of the creator ! How stable these constructed chimeras will be in nature is a game of chance.

So far the only information we do have is that GE seeds like maize, canola and rape seed have crossed over into similar landraces and wild relatives in other parts of the world, thus contaminating both wild and domesticated plants. The legal implications of this have been widely discussed (for more information check Gmwatch.com or the PIL in the Supreme Court of India no:260/2005- Aruna Rodrigues Vs Union of India).

But when we talk of Bt gene which produces a toxin or protein within the transgenic plant, we need to realise that cross-pollination is only one avenue of contamination. Far more serious from the long term view of our food production system is the transmission of this toxin or asso-ciated transgenic information via the roots into the soil and soil organisms which will widely circulate these concentrations of foreign substances throughout the soil life and possibly interfere with soil nutrition or even transform these substances into another sequestered form within the soil.

After all, the dynamics of the soil is always and without exception to break down dead tissues. In this debate on GE organisms, no one is talking about the effect of transgenes on the soil!

Mycologists have found that fine filaments of fungi connect the root systems of many plants in a particular area, even whole habitats which includes weeds, grasses, crops, trees, etc. In this interwoven web of life what effect will artificial constructs like Bt brinjal have? Bt brinjal and Bt cotton have been designed, by admission of the scientists themselves, to produce much higher quantities of Bt toxin than would naturally exist, within just one plant! Furthermore it will be produced within the plant tissues and therefore will be decomposed by soil bacteria as a transgene. Surely the risk of endangering our already stressed soil is too big a risk to take.

Plants also have common mycorrhizal partnerships so it cannot be ruled out that GE Bt toxins might be transmitted via the root zones to other plants and in particular nitrogen-fixing plants (which are an important source of our vegetarian dietary protein).

How this mycelial matrix carrying high levels of transgenic Bt toxin will affect medicinal weeds which are very common in our agricultural fields? should be addressed.

Through so many avenues the risk of contamination is possible, it can then work its way through the food chain and become further concentrated by lower animals to then enter our bodies not just as a direct food but via other means. It is now a well-known fact that several hundred bacteria live in the human gut and whether they will treat trans-genes as a friend or foe is not something I want to find out by trial and error on my body!!

Several angry young people have told me that those who have decided to meddle with our food should be the ones who along with their families, test GE food! After all, no human trials have been done with Bt Brinjal to justify it being declared as safe for human consumption. Public common sense must prevail upon the bio-tech scientific community to re-consider with wisdom the harmful consequences of their research and exercise the precautionary principle.

Some years ago, the then Chief Minister of Karnataka, S.M. Krishna made a statement that those of us who did not want GE food were "unpatriotic and working against the national interest." At first I wondered how a person in his position could make such an irresponsible statement. Was he simply not aware of what was at stake if GE food was approved for growing in India? Was he that ignorant? Our foremost politicians are not qualified to make this decision for us.

Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister, has said, "We need to strike a balance between using the potential of Biotechnology to meet the requirements of hungry people while addressing concerns about interfering with nature." He has signed agreements with biotech companies and American Universities which are intended to smoothen the entry of transgenics into India. Yet I have the feeling that he will definitely not be eating GE foods himself (little does he know he may not be able to avoid it). Recently Bayer, which produces GE rice seed in the USA, was taken to court by 200 farmers for contamination of their crop by Bayers' transgenic variety.

In a statement issued by Bayer, they apologised to the farmers saying that despite all precautions taken, somehow the contamination took place! This more or less is a testimony of what will happen in India where innumerable of varieties of rice will be at stake which not only are our staple food but also have deep cultural and spiritual significance for us.

It also shows that once a GE seed is released into the environment it is not possible to predict what can go wrong, nor is it possible to withdraw it once it has been assimilated into the germplasm pod. Where GE seeds are concerned, there is no balance that can be struck, there is no going back!

I have recently read a brief of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), in which, long before the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved Bt Brinjal for commercialisation, its approval was more or less a foregone conclusion which makes me wonder who paid how big a bribe to whom. Monsanto was recently fined in Indonesia for attempting to bribe a government official to approve Bt Brinjal there.

The GEAC is the government regulatory body for approval of GE products and is severely compromised by a conflict of interest as most of its members are from the pro-biotech lobby or the industry itself. You and I can be sure that India's seed sovereignty is not even a cause for concern for the GEAC. It is and should be our concern.

Most of all, young adults and children who are going to inherit the future India, have to take a stand on this issue before March 31, 2010. We have a right, as citizens, to an India, where we the people should have access to safe food and control over our biodiversity of seeds and plants free from the domination of Biotech interests, whether these are corporations or nations or international pressure groups.

In the world's biggest democracy, we will have to fight for that right in whatever way we can. Or else, we have the choice to choke on our own complacency.