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Bt, Interrupted

Editorial, The Indian Express, Feb 10, 2010
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's decision to advance the government's verdict on the commercial release of Bt brinjal to Tuesday evening was as abrupt as it was baffling. There would be a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal, he said a day ahead of schedule. 

The announcement capped weeks of fractious public "consultations" in which a familiar array of sceptics held the stage. It also comes upon remarkably unambiguous obstruction by state governments, which argued that trials to assess the genetically modified crop's effect on health and ecology had not been conclusive enough. At the snap press conference called on Tuesday evening, Ramesh appeared to heed this caution. 

"There is no over-riding urgency to introduce it (Bt brinjal)," he said. "When the public sentiments have been negative, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary and principle-based approach." The decision, he added, would be on hold till "independent scientific studies" settled the questions about safety.
Given the rocky experience with genetically modified crops, especially food, this seemingly reasonable approach is nothing but obfuscation. Public sentiment is an odd input to a decision that must be purely scientific. By invoking it, the minister abdicates his responsibility to carry forward the clearance process on the basis of fact, not hypothesis. 

And the facts are as follows: in October, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had cleared the commercial release of Bt brinjal. The GEAC is constituted in the ministry of environment and forests, and its clearance is supposed to abide by the highest degree of caution. Ramesh's office puts the onus on him to detail exactly why the committee's clearance has been so summarily sacrificed at the altar of "public sentiments". 

By playing to the gallery, Ramesh has not only withheld from the farmer an option that could increase productivity and drastically cut pesticide use. He has also undermined the institutional mechanism that has sustained this country's cautious introduction of GM seeds like cotton and that is in the process of clearing other food crops like rice, okra and tomato.

Unless there is a quick course correction, the Bt brinjal embargo could retard the pace of the "second green revolution" promised through the development, trials and introduction of GM varieties of crops to enhance productivity and cut the use of water and pesticides, as the case may be. It would be most unfortunate if policy decisions were to be exposed to a miasma of conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated fear-mongering.
It Passed Science, But Failed PoliticsJoseph Vackayil, Financial Express (India), Feb. 9, 201
The judgement day for the pest-resistant genetically modified Bt brinjal technology finally arrived on Tuesday. The minister for environment decided that Bt brinjal must wait longer before it can reach the Indian farmer-farmers are already struggling to grow brinjal, fighting what is often a losing battle with pests using huge quantities of pesticides.

The technology, it seems, has been kept in cold storage, owing more to mass frenzy than scientific reasons. The basic science is clear-the insertion of Cry1Ac gene of the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to the genome of brinjal will be expressed when bitten and ingested by the target pest. The pest dies not by the toxicity of the Bt but by the gum-like action of the ingested Bt that chokes the worm to death.

The process of getting Bt brinjal to farms had progressed quite far. The inventors of the technology had already given it out to public sector universities for the development of select varieties in different regions of the country. The final approval for public release had been given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a top-notch scientific body. But the power to finally release Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation was given to the government, and the government has unfortunately decided to stop it.

Some of the political parties had called for Prime Minister's intervention to ban Bt brinjal. A public interest litigation has been filed in the Madras High Court against GEAC's approval for the release of Bt brinjal. Over ten state governments, ruled by the entire spectrum of political parties, recently banned it without even waiting for the Centre's decision.

As a run-up to the government's decision on Bt brinjal, during the last few weeks, the Union environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, held public hearings in different parts of the country. The public hearings turned out to be public outbursts to 'crucify' Bt brinjal, many not even knowing what it really is. The call to outcast the new brinjal has come from all quarters, from cine artists, politicians, NGOs, scientists, farmer organisations, organic farmer groups and Siddha practitioners. The list is endless. The irony is that the real farmer, the one who is to take the seed, sow it and nurture it, is a silent spectator to all these dramatic developments. He is silent because he does not know.

At an institutional level, the foundation of opposition to Bt brinjal was laid by PM Bhargava, who was installed in the GEAC on the directive of the Supreme Court. Bhargava opposed the public release of the Bt brinjal until more detailed, independent studies and risk assessments were made. MS Swaminathan also suggested the same. He has said that the government should not be in a hurry to introduce Bt brinjal "until fundamental issues were addressed." In a recent statement to the media, he said that every technology has its benefits and risks. But the important factor is the ability to analyse the risks and benefits and find which outweights. Swaminathan says that if farmers choose to cultivate only the Bt variety, for its benefits, the multitudes of other varieties may become extinct. Why this is necessarily bad over the long term from either the producer or consumer point of view is not clear.

The environment minister seemingly echoed the views of some sceptical scientists when he said that more studies are needed to investigate the long-term health effects (on humans) of Bt brinjal. So far, a number of studies have already shown that there is no adverse effect to human health. On the other hand, the long-term effects on human health of pesticides used in the cultivation of regular brinjal are well known.

Science aside, even the opposition based on socio-economic factors is unfounded. Contrary to what many activists claim, Bt brinjal, in itself, will not lead to multinational hegemony or control. Scientists in agricultural universities in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, who have developed the native Bt brinjal varieties, have confirmed that farmers can save the seeds of Bt brinjal and plant the crop without paying any royalty to anybody. There is no control over the seeds by any outside agency or company. The Bt brinjal seeds in the marketplace would be under the control of public sector institutions and the price will be controlled.

Any blanket 'no' to science and genetic engineering is a risky game. Now, almost 70% of brinjal cultivated by spraying gallons of pesticides is lost to the pests. If this situation continues for another 20 years, no farmer will be willing to cultivate brinjal as he would not be able to retrieve anything marketable. A viable technology to control pests without pesticides has to be developed, not just for brinjal but for almost every crop on which mankind depends. GM is the best way to ensure an adequate supply of pesticide-free food at reasonable prices-GM crops have much better yields.

It is unfortunate that public sentiment is being moulded by rumours and assumptions and not science.