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TN agro university in eye of Bt brinjal storm

Testing ground for GM foods in India

Papri Sri Raman | Tamil Nadu | 26 October 2009 |

Genetically modified or GM foods has not got many takers around the world, yet India seems to have offered US giants Monsanto and Mahyco free testing at the Tamil Nadu agro university.

India cannot now go back on genetically modified foods even if it wanted to. It is too late for that though one may argue, what one wears cannot be the same as what one eats. “The Bt brinjal camp is doing just that, putting forward the bt cotton data to argue that similar huge benefits will accrue to farmers of bt brinjal,” say activists.

“What we now need is a movement like Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement by all groups against Bt food to stop this sweep of genetically monitored crops in India”, G Nammalvar, who is an organic farmer, researcher, educator and has set up the Nammalvar Ecological Foundation for Farm Research and Global Food Security, told Current. He alleges at least 30 GM crops are under trial in Tamil Nadu Agricultural University’s (TNAU) fields.

He is not the only one protesting. In January this year, 15 activists from the Safe Food Alliance presented bouquets of aubergines (brinjals) to 150 members of Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and demanded that they stop the controversial field trials of Bt brinjal by the Coimbatire-based TNAU.

“TNAU has been aggressively researching GM food crops. Many eminent scientists like Dr Pushpa M Bhargava (who set up the state-of-art Centre for Cell and Molecular Biology), special invitee of the Supreme Court in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and Dr Gilles Eric Seralini, from Universite de Caen, France have said that Bt brinjal may present a serious risk for human and animal health and the release should be forbidden,” Greenpeace says. “India is the centre of origin and diversity of brinjal. If Bt brinjal is approved, this will be the first time in the world that a GM crop is allowed in its centre of origin/diversity, risking our bio-diversity,” one Greenpeace campaigner points out.

“They (the university and India’s bio-tech policy group backing Bt crops) are squandering public resources and taxpayers money towards the profit of foreign companies,” he adds.

But the Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh shot back: “They (Greenpeace) have spread wrong information. I condemn it. I am for transparency. There is a way to conduct discourse.”

On October 14, when the country’s bio-technology regulator, GEAC, okayed Bt brinjal for cultivation in India, Bhartgava said, “the decision is a big blunder and the GEAC has taken this decision despite many dissent notes from various experts and senior scientists.”

The All India Kisan Sabha protested, “There are many unresolved issues surrounding the environmental release of the transgenic vegetable as well as genuine concerns expressed over its safety for human consumption. There is also the added threat of all future seeds and, therefore, Indian agriculture coming under the control of global MNCs and the charging of extortionate prices from Indian farmers.” Companies selling GM seeds price Bt seeds 10% higher than market rates.

The Sabha notes, “It has been pointed out that some of the ‘experts’ in the GEAC have conflicts of interest. Certain experts on the committee are reported to have expressed strong objections, which were, however, not taken into account.” At least three of its members had conflicting interests, civil society groups allege. Two members were involved in an earlier research commissioned by Mahyco, the seed company that has developed Bt brinjal. The third, involved in GM crop development, too has a stake in Bt brinjal, they say.

Genetically Modified brinjal is part of an USAID programme called ‘Agri-Biotechnology Support Programme (ABSP-II)’ under which the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi; University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore are working with Cornell University, Monsanto and Mahyco, two GM seed companies, to roll out GM crops in India. The decision to conduct the field trials in public funded institutions was taken in September 2007 by the GEAC. Brinjal is grown in around 5.5 lakh hectares in the country.

Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Association member Vettavalam Manikandan, says TNAU is also conducting trials of Monsanto’s Bt maize, in spite of a recent Austrian government research study proving that this particular variety of maize could cause reproductive disorders. (Austria has invoked an environment clause in a European Union treaty for the GM ban. EU countries insist on GM marking for all food products on the shelves.)

The university is “owned by Monsanto”, the farmers organisations in Tamil Nadu have alleged. They have demanded that all GM crop approvals and field trials be stopped immediately. That genetically engineered foods be subjected to long term and inter-generational tests before any open-air field trial is permitted in Tamil Nadu. That state agricultural universities disengage from any partnership research on GM crops with any private companies. Medicinal herbs, staple crops like rice and other culturally significant crops should be declared as ‘NOT’ to be genetically engineered.

If China can say ‘No’ to GM soy and if Peru can refuse GM potato, why can’t India at least insist on marking GM foods, anti-Bt activists want to know. Last year, France, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Austria and Poland banned Mon 810, the only cultivated GM variety of corn in Europe. States like Kerala, Uttarkhand and Nagaland have expressed hesitation. However, the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (NCAP), an Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) affiliate institute, has begun conducting socio economic impact assessment of GM crops from this August. NCAP has earmarked 40 locations in states including Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa for these impact assessment. In 2002, the GEAC abandoned a plan to release GM mustard after large-scale public protest. Activists have expressed “ethical and cultural concerns” as well “with respect to the possible use of animal genes in plants products.”

TNAU has drawn the most flak. “TNAU alone has signed two research agreements with Mahyco-Monsanto, for a Bt brinjal variety and for GM papaya.” TNAU began testing transgenic papaya in 2007 when Monsanto gave a ‘royalty-free’ licence of its GM papaya to TNAU, calling it “philanthropy”. India produces about 2.5 million quintals of papaya every year.

“TNAU is also receiving funds for GM rice varieties and GM sorghum. TNAU becomes the first institute in the country to having been completely sold out to the unsafe, ecologically destructive technology of GM,” Greenpeace claims.

The university authorities have retaliated several times last year with police complaints against outfits like the Tamizhaga Velan Kappu Kuzhu. TNAU says allegation “that Bt maize under research trial in TNAU is hazardous has no scientific basis.”

“The GM maize trial laid out in TNAU was meant to study the effectiveness of GM maize against stem borers and weeds. The impact of GM maize against non-target pests and soil eco-systems will also be studied,” TNAU had said in a press release a few months ago. TNAU has police cases against 88 activists of the Uzavar Uzaippalar Katchi (UUK) and its chief K Chellamuthu.

Activists say that data and field trial results that have been generated by TNAU and Mahyco/Monsanto are not in the public domain nor faced any independent analysis with the company citing reasons of commercial confidence and that the disclosure of the data would affect their businesses. Sathriyasekar of Pasumai Thaayagam points out, “We saw trials of Bt rice done by Mahyco last year at Alandurai, which had serious bio-safety violations, risking contamination of natural crop. Now we are seeing Mahyco trials at the university, risking contamination to all other crops around.” Pasumai Thayaagam, an NGO run by the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK party), and the parent party have both protested the green flag given to Bt brinjal.

TNAU is also developing a transgenic hill banana, which would be resistant to bunchy top virus (BBTV). “We are planning to engineer resistance in the hill banana against BBTV,” P Balasubramanian of the TNAU’s centre for plant molecular biology has been quoted.

Various virus-resistant potato and groundnut, and drought and salinity-tolerant rice are also under trial in India. Drought tolerant transgenic lines of IR64 is being developed by the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI), Karnal, and will be tested by the TNAU. Mangrove-rice gene mix is a success story.

‘Late blight’ virus in potatoes is being monitored for the ‘Rb gene’ at the Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI), Shimla.

Groundnut cultivated in 7.5 million hectare in India by over nine million marginal farmers in semi-arid regions is subject to the attack of ‘tobacco streak virus’ (TSV). ICRISAT, Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University, Hyderabad, and National Bureau of Plant Genetic Research, New Delhi, are developing transgenic groundnut.

Monsanto has also given a mustard gene technology to The Energy Research Institute.

There is no escaping GM, though GM trials in India are embroiled in Supreme Court tussles and the court has not allowed large-scale trials of GM crops yet.

Meddling with nature

Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis  (or Bt) is a bacteria which occurs naturally in soil. It is also found on the dark side of leaves, in the gut of caterpillars and butterflies. It contains a gene called the cry gene. When it forms spores, it produces a kind of poisonous protein, an endo-toxine (also called cry toxin) which acts against butteflies, beetles, mosquitoes, ants and many other species of insects. When insects swallow this toxin, the alkaline digestive juices in the insect’s gut activate this poison which kills the insect.

The Bt bacteria was first discovered in 1901 by a Japanese scientist. Their insect killing properties have been known and used by farmers since the 1920s. A Belgian company, the Plant Genetic Systems, first commercially produced and marketed the Bt toxin in 1985. What they did was extract the cry gene from the Bt bacteria and insert the toxic protein into tobacco cells to stop pests from eating them. It was only as late as 2006 that Bt cotton was planted in large areas.

One problem of Bt crop is that nature is under evolutionary pressure to become resistant to the cry toxin. If pests grow resistant, argue the anti-Bt lobby, nature’s protection mechanism will be destroyed.

Diamond back moths are reported to have developed resistance. There is some evidence of pests becoming resistant to one variety of Mexican Bt maize. Scientists here have warned of bio-diversity loss in the place where maize originated. Chinese farmers have reported that after 7 years of growing Bt cotton, most pests have developed immunity to the Bt gene. In India, mealy bugs have become resistant, studies say.

The second problem is the genetically monitored crop cannot multiply naturally. It can grow only through specially produced seeds because the GM crop plant is of one gender. So farmers have to buy GM plant seed from the biotech companies selling them.

Playing god

In the 1940s, Mexico wanted to increase its wheat production and the US wanted to help it through a Rockefeller Foundation initiative ‘The Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program’. The joint venture involved a team of four scientists, among them Norman Borlaug, who later on became famous as the father of Asia’s Green Revolution. Borlaug bred high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat varieties. This was the beginning of genetic re-modelling of commercial crop and the world has lived on this transgenic (in other words genetically monitored) crop for 50 years now.In March 1962, a few of the Borlaug strains were grown in the fields of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa under the stewardship of MS Swaminathan. India’s then agriculture minister (who happened to be also Tamil) grew it in his kitchen garden.

Then on, there has been no looking back. Land devoted to the semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties in Asia expanded to over 40 million acres (160,000 sqkm) in 1970 and accounted for over 10% of the more productive cereal land in Asia (including India and Pakistan). According to The International Service For Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) cabbage, castor, cauliflower, corn, groundnut, okra, potato, rice (including basmati and golden rice), sorghum, tomato, pigeon pea, mustard, banana, cassava, papaya are under GM testing. Nine crops are under trial in the private sector, 10 crops are under field trial.