Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009
Save Brinjal, Save Ourselves
Tuesday 24 November 2009, by
For some time brinjal, a vegetable which in no way can be called exotic, and eaten in different forms by people in most parts of the country, has attracted media attention and is now caught in a tussle. The contending parties are the State and Central governments, activists working on safe food, protection of the environment, organic cultivation and the American agro-business company Monsanto. Before proceeding we have to be clear of two abbreviations which are important in the present discussion. They are GMO and Bt.
GMOs are genetically modified organisms, that is, organisms whose DNA has undergone gene insertion. The inserted gene is usually from a different species. It produces a GM protein. This protein is selected to confer a new trait for the transgenic organism into which it is placed. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a soil bacterium that produces a pesticide. Solutions containing the bacteria including spores and protein crystals are sprayed on plants as a method of insect control by organic farmers. Scientists altered the sequence of the gene that produces Bt toxin and inserted it into plant DNA. Now the plant can produce the Bt toxin and thus act as repellent to the bollworm attacking it. Organisms do undergo mutation and genetic changes over long periods of time. This could affect plants or other species but that happens as part of natural evolution. In the case of GMO and Bt a foreign body is inserted into an organism to become effective quickly.
Bt Brinjal, which has attracted media attention partly because of the outrage it has generated, will be the first GM food crop in India if it receives approval from the government. This hybrid was developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), the India arm of Monsanto. In January 2009, Mahyco submitted the tests results of Bt brinjal to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the clearing house for all GM crops in India. The regulatory authority would have taken a decision in a few months. That did not happen because its opponents got hold of Mahyco’s test results by filing a Right to Information appeal. One analysis of Mahyco’s tests results done by Gills-Eric Seralini, a biochemist at the French Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Issues (CRIIGEN) found that Mahyco had left out statistically significant differences between GM and control groups in its report to the GEAC. This report commissioned by Greenpeace also pointed out that Bt brinjal produces a protein that could induce resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin, which could be a major health problem.
It was with cotton, a non-food crop, that we first heard of Bt. But more than Bt we heard about the farmers’ suicide especially in Vidarbha, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. What attracted the media, perhaps, was the desolateness of the farmers, the loss of their crop, the burden of loans on their head—all of which was true. But Bt too had a role and we have some information on that. Let us start with Monsanto’s own country. Bt spraying over Washington resulted in more than 250 health complaints; six people had to go to the emergency room from allergies or asthma. Workers who apply Bt spray reported eye, nose, throat and respiratory irritation. The allergic symptoms associated with Bt spray exposure are sneezing, running nose, watery eyes, skin inflammation, itching, swelling with redness, conjunctival infection etc. The same source reveals that agricultural labourers in six villages in India who picked or loaded Bt cotton reported reactions of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract. Some workers were hospitalised. Workers in a cotton gin factory take antihistamines daily. The companies that are developing GM, Bt technologies assert that their products are quite safe. But research by scientists who want sufficient enquiry and research to go into the impact of GM/ Bt food on health before they are recommended for human or animal consumption have other conclusions. One of their findings is that a GM corn variety is engineered to produce high levels of lysine. When cooked and processed, it may produce toxic compounds associated with symptoms of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, allergies, kidney disease, cancer and ageing. (Smith 2008)
Female rats were fed Roundup* ready soy starting before conception and continuing through pregnancy and weaning. Of the offspring 55.6 per cent died within three weeks compared to nine per cent from non-GM soy controls. Some pups from GM-fed mothers were significantly smaller and both mother and pups became more aggressive. When offspring from GM-fed rats were mated they were unable to conceive. (Ibid.)
All these give us more than enough food for thought not only about Bt brinjal, but questions around the technologies propagated by the supporters of GM products.
India has agreed as part of a global commitment to ensure food security to the entire population. This should not be confused with making available rice at two or three rupees per kilo to a section of the population or giving mid-day meals to poor school children. Food security exists when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet their dietary food preferences for an active and healthy life. Health here includes both physical and mental well-being. We know that there are very large sections of the population who have no access to sufficient and necessary food to keep them alive. A government concerned about the aam admi cannot afford to forget the urgency to stand by safe food.
This gives added importance to the struggles of all those who are fighting against the government approval to Bt brinjal. The approval of GM food crop would be a blow to the rights of the consumer to choose safe food. To make consumers aware of the complexities of GM food and help them steer clear of foods that could potentially be contaminated with GMO content, Greenpeace has prepared a pocket guide. Greenpeace workers contacted food companies and asked them about their position on GM food. Based on their responses the food companies were classified under two lists—green and red. The companies in the green list assured Greenpeace that they do not use GM ingredients. This was confirmed by written declarations or e-mails from the companies. The companies under the red list either use GM ingredients, have no problems in using them or did not reply. Many familiar food companies like the Britannia, Cadbury India, Hindustan Unilevers, Nestle India are under the red list.
More information about the above can be had from Greenpeace who can be reached by: logging on www.safefoodnow.org (Telephone: 080 4115 4861; email: email@example.com)
Who are they? Why are they interested in India and brinjal? Before answering these questions let us find out why Enron chose Maharashtra and Coca Cola chose the relatively unknown village Plachimada in Kerala. These are certainly related to the changes from resistance to foreign involvement and commitment to self-reliance to opening the country to neo-liberal policies which include Foreign Direct Investment and dependence on foreign technology. When the Coca Cola company came the poor people hoped to get work and wages. But in reality what happened was the clean and plentiful water in the area got polluted in such a way that the water became useless not only for drinking and cooking, but for bathing, washing utensils and clothes. The people also developed all kinds of ailments alien to the area. Surely all these foreign companies have supporters at the highest level of authority in the country.
John Francis Queeny (1859-1933), founder of the Monsanto company, spent thirty years in the pharmaceutical industry. The agricultural section of the corporation has retained the name Monsanto. Monsanto was producing and selling DDT and PCB (Polychlorinated biphenyls) till America banned them in 1970. After that the company turned its attention to chemical fertilisers and developing genetically modified cattle feed and seeds. In fact in the development of these and their sale Monsanto established an aggressive style. Besides, in silencing those who oppose them too the company became a model to emulate in the corporate world. For example, Dr Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey wrote the book, Against the Grain: Biotechnology and The Corporate Takeover of Your Food. This book was to be published by Vital Health. An advocate of Monsanto threatened them over the phone and they withdrew the agreement. In 1998 ‘Common Courage’ published the book.
In the same year the Ecologist magazine which addressed a wide range of environmental subjects and promoted an ecological system decided to bring out a special number titled Monsanto Files which was a precise assessment of the GMO chemical giant’s activities. Under threat from the latter, the printer whom the Ecologist had known for 29 years destroyed 14,000 copies of the printed matter. The printers remained silent and Monsanto denied any intervention. The magazine too got a new printer for the Monsanto Files. All those who opposed Monsanto did not have such luck.
Monsanto and their tribe are modern colonisers whose motto is to conquer and control, not just land and people, but minds and thinking capacity too. And in this process the modern market and the greed for profit help. Some years back, one morning the world awoke to hear the news about mad cow disease in the UK. The news occupied headlines of newspapers for quite some time. Europe and America refused to import meat from Britain. There was only one way out, and that was to kill millions of cows and calves. How did the disease come about? To increase milk production and also mint profit the cows were fed with bone powder and fish meals. Cows and cattle are vegetarians or, to be accurate, grass-eaters whether they are in Britain or India.
All certified organic products, vegetables or grains-sold in India, as of now are GM free food. However, it is known that there are 238 varieties of 56 GM crops (including 41 food crops) at different stages of trial across the country. If Bt brinjal gets approval there is every possibility that others will follow. If Monsanto succeeds other companies including Indian ones will start producing Bt seeds. Monsanto knows that India is a huge country and that brinjal is relatively cheap and is eaten everywhere. The government of Kerala has demanded that the State be left free of GMO-Bt intrusion. It is understood that the States of Orissa, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have made the same demand. But it has to be noted that the scale of field trials is so large and spread over that there are huge possibilities of contamination of non-GM food crops. One can argue that this is a global phenomenon. That need not deter us. In fact we can have global allies in our struggles against GMO and Bt. Our goal should also be GMO-Bt free India and the world. However, our immediate task is to stop our authorities from giving approval to Bt brinjal. For this we can send letters, e-mails, FAX and mass petitions to the concerned Minister Sri Jairam Ramesh, at Delhi. His e-mail id is: firstname.lastname@example.org; address: C-1/9 Lodhi Gardens, Rajesh Pilot Marg, New Delhi 110003. Our protests should reach the Minister before December 31, 2009.
We cannot afford to forget that all science and scientists are not seeking truth. Neither all those who are in authority, nor food companies are for the welfare of humanity either.
*Roundup is the brand name of a systemic, broad-spectrum herbicide produced by Monsanto. It contains the active ingredient glyphosate which is the most used herbicide in the US. Roundup is the most selling herbicide worldwide since 1980. As of 2009, the Roundup line of products represents about half of Monsanto’s annual revenue.
Jeffrey M. Smith (2008), Genetic Roulette: The documented health risks of genetically engineered foods, Other India Press, Deccan Development Society.
Kavitha Srinivasa (2009), “Frankenstein Goes Purple”, The Indian Express, April 25.
Laura Orlando (2002), “Industry Attack on Dissent. from Rachel Carson to Oprah”, Dollars and Sense, March-April.
Usha S. (2009), “Vinasattinte Ottamoolikal” (Malayalam) Madhyamam Weekly, November 2.
The author is a renowned economist and concerned social activist based in Thiruvananthapuram.