International Scientists Say “No” to Bt Brinjal approval

Despite indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal trial in India and Supreme Court ban in the Philippines, it is alarming that Bangladesh is preparing for the approval for commercial release.

In India, similar attempts to introduce Bt. Brinjal in the market led to controversy and on February 9, 2010, the ministry of environment and forests imposed a moratorium on Bt Brinjal. In the absence of scientific consensus and opposition from state governments and others, the ministry decided to impose a moratorium on the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal until all concerns expressed by the public, NGOs, scientists and the state government were addressed adequately. In India, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests Mr. Jai Ram Ramesh has called for public consultations across the country and decided not to release Bt Brinjal as a commercial crop. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh no such consultations were conducted, on the contrary Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) seems to be in a hurry to get approval for its commercial release.

Since 2011, there have been reports on the trial of Bt. Brinjal. Recently the Financial Express (26 June, 2013) and Shokaler Khobor reported on the possiblity of approval application by BARI for commercial release. The Daily Star news titled , Brinjal modified Bangladesh set to join elusive club of 28 GM crop growing countries (July 11, 2013)  as a first page lead news drew national and international attention, much among the environmentalist groups and anti-GMO groups out of a concern. In an article published in the Statesman Tushar Chakraborty, molecular biologist in India says “from India Monsanto, in the garb of Mahyco, is now targeting one of the most popular, common, and cheap vegetable loved by millions in Bangladesh. We hope the people will take cues from Bt-brinjal’s faulty journey from India to Philippines and stop its further spread.

Aruna Rodrigues, the lead Petitioner in India's Supreme Court in a Public Interest Writ (ongoing) for a moratorium on GM Crops was dismayed with plans by the BD Govt. to introduce Bt brinjal into Bangladesh. The Bt brinjal construct is the same as what was planned for India on which there is now an INDEFINITE moratorium. It will stay in place until there is independent testing of the self- assessed dossier of Mahyco-Monsanto to the satisfaction of both the independent scientific community (which appraised the dossier quite independently of the Regulators) and civil society. She pointed out that the Mahyco Dossier is a cover-up and fraudulent. Bt brinjal on the evidence cannot be considered safe and will be a highly retrograde step for food safety, food sovereignty, the environment as brinjal species will certainly be contaminated. It will also be seriously detrimental to the interests of small holder farmers which is a pattern of agriculture that BD shares with India.

The environmental groups, farmers organisations and health groups were concerned as many people are aware of the harmful effects of hybrid crops and are cautious about GM food being promoted into the food chain. Brinjal is a favourite vegetable for people across class, also used as snacks . Beguni, made of brinjal is used particularly as Iftar item during Ramadan. The news of Bt Brinjal approval application came during Ramadan time, when fasting muslims were having Beguni, the brinjal pieces wrapped with beson and fried in deep oil, as an iftar item along with Peaju (lentil with onion) and chola (black gram). This is common but favourate iftar item for people across class -- rich, middle or poorer people. One of the question people started asking if Bt brinjal on the market already? How will we distinguish it from others? As consumers people want to make their own choices – this is the same demand as of the conscious European and American citizens who do not know what is on the shelves of super markets. Bangladeshi people have also been kept in dark for long time that the imported Soyabean oil was genetically modified. Now the government is using the argument that people have got used to GM food through the use of Soyabean oil. The Daily Star news reports “Though it will be the country’s first home-grown GM crop, consumers in Bangladesh have long been exposed to GM food through consumption of imported GM soybean oil”. This is unethical that despite having international regulations on transshipment of GM food from one country to the other and importing country must follow some precautionery measures. According to Article 18 of Cartagena Protocol which is about Handling, Transport, Packaging and Identification “ In order to avoid adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, each Party shall take necessary measures to require that living modified organisms that are subject to intentional transboundary movement within the scope of this Protocol are handled, packaged and transported under conditions of safety, taking into consideration relevant international rules and standards”. The Soybean oil import in the country was not differentiated as GM food import and therefore no precautionery measures have been taken. This is violation of Cartegena protocol, which the importers and the government must be held responsible. So we already became guinea pigs for Soybean and now the next step is Bt brinjal. If we do not come up health safety assessment before its commercial release, how are we going to deal with the irreversible effects that have already been proved by scientists in other countries?

UBINIG and Nayakrishi Andolon farmers have already protested against the application for approval and have urged the government to withheld the approval process till it is proved safe for health, environment, biological diversity. But it seems government is going ahead with its plans as reported by daily Jonokanto (17 August, 2013) that four Bt Brinjal varieties are going to be released following the biosafety guidelines after getting approval from the National Committee on Biosafety despite the concerns expressed by the farmers and environmental groups in Bangladesh. The report gives information that India and Philippines have developed Bt brinjal but does not mention that the trials are stopped in these countries. Out of three countries only Bangladesh is their last hope to release it commercially. It must be mentioned that the Bt brinjal research because of the need of Bangladeshi people as consumers or farmers. Bangladesh has enough brinjal varieties across the country. It was only after the introduction of hybrid brinjals, heavy pesticide doses were used. Instead of stopping hybrid brinjal cultivation and encouraing local variety brinjals, the company is not toxicating the seed, so that it can control one particular pest, the fruit and shoot borer (FSB).

Bt. Brinjal is a GMO. The genetic engineering is done by inserting a gene cry1Ac from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis through an Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer to eggplants to express an insecticide, in this case a protein that is toxic to certain kinds of pest insects. ‘Bt’ is used by some to indicate that the gene for the insecticidal protein is sourced (and subsequently modified) from bacteria found in the soil but the genes are from a large family of genes called cry, for the crystal forming proteins that they specify. There are many different cry genes and often several different variants can be sourced from a single clonal line of bacteria [Heinemann, J. A. (2009). 'Hope not Hype'. The future of agriculture guided by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. 2009. Penang, Third World Network.; Pigott, C. R., King, M.]

Bangladesh is a ‘target’ country for the Bt. Brinjal under the ABSP II and the 'Monsanto technology' - a joint venture with Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO) of India and its collaboration with the private seed company East West Seeds, Bangladesh. The Bt. Brinjal contains a gene construct of Cry 1 Ac from Monsanto, the American multinational corporation, which has a 26 per cent stake in MAHYCO-Monsanto Biotech (MMB). The public sector institutions in India and Bangladesh will use the MAHYCO material to backcross with their own brinjal varieties to incorporate the genetic event into them so that the plant become poisonous to the fruit and stem borers.

Farmers are concerned that they have been made dependent through Hybrid seeds and spending on pesticides. And now with Bt. brinjal, it will make them even more dependent. Women farmers have been keeping the seeds themselves for ages. But now the company promotion leaflets say that they will “ensure supply” of seeds to farmers. It is obvious that the GM seeds are proprietary seeds so the ownership belongs to the company not the farmers.

Usually biotechnology is promoted as an “advanced science” and that we need to have this technology in order to solve our food problem. But this technology is not yet proved to be safe on many grounds. After the news of Bt. Brinjal approval in newspapers, international scientists have expressed their concerns and appealed to the Prime Minister not to allow for commercial release. Dr. David Andow, Professor of Entomology at the University of Minnesota, (who has been conducting research on the environmental effects of genetically engineered crops, especially Bt crops, since the 1980s and served as an advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture of the US Department of Agriculture and the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency related to scientific policy on this issue, and has served the US National Academy of Sciences and Secretariat of the World Trade Organization on scientific questions related to environmental risk assessment of genetic engineering) has sent a letter to the PM. His study in India shows that Bt brinjal may increase profitability for large-holder farmers by Rs. 23,439/ha and for small-holder farmers by at most Rs. 3,250/ha and many small-holder farmers may realize no benefit. In contrast, implementation of integrated pest management (IPM), is expected to realize for smallholder farmers Tk. 82,699/ha during the rabi season and Tk. 141,759/ha during the kharif season (the IPM results are based on data taken on small-holder farms in Bangladesh. IPM has been proven on-farm, while Bt brinjal has not been evaluated under realistic farming conditions. In addition, there are issues associated with the evolution of resistance in the pest, which would nullify any benefits of Bt brinjal, and other risks and effects on small-holder farmers. His assertion is that allowing to release Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is premature.

Professor David Schubert, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, USA stated that the major concern is the unprecedented health hazard to the population of Bangladesh because there has not been adequate safety testing of Bt Brinjal for human consumption. It was rejected in India and the Philippines on this basis. He also raised few other points, such as i. There is lack of need. Brinjal is not a crop threatened by an overwhelming insect infestation, ii. environmental risk: Brinjal is native to Bangladesh and the GM genes would unquestionable contaminate and degrade the native populations, iii. the purchase of seeds on an annual basis as opposed to saving seed from year to year would increase costs at all level of the food chain; iv. once the company controls the seed market of any single food plant, seed for more GM plants will follow and the company would have tremendous power over both the farmers, which constitute a major segment of the Bangladeshi population, as well as the political process; v. GM brinjal expressing Bt protein poses a serious hazard to the health of those who consume it. The claim that any GM plant expressing Bt toxin and particularly Bt Brinjal has been thoroughly tested for safety and is therefore safe to eat is not true. There is no rigorous testing of any GM crop in the United States or elsewhere.

The individuals from Cornell University making the claim the Bt Brinjal is safe for humans have no valid documents to support this claim. Cornell University and many of its scientists receive large amounts of research funding from Monsanto to study and promote Monsanto products.

Along with Prof. Schubert, ten Independent International scientists from different countries in the world, have appealed to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh not to allow the introduction of Bt. Brinjal. They include 1. Dr. Michael Antoniou Professor Gene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine Expertise in gene structure and function, and transgenic biotechnologies including human gene therapy. 2. Susan Bardoczu, DSc. Professor Human Nutrition, GMO expert of the Ministry of Rural Development of Hungary (rtd), 3. Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava Former Vice Chairman, National Knowledge Commission; Former Member, National Security Advisory Board and Founder Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad 4. Dr. Judy Carman Senior Epidemiologist and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Flinders University in South Australia, 5. Professor Jack A. Heinemann, Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety; University of Canterbury, 6. Professor Hans R Herren World Food Prize Laureate, co Chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) and member of the US National Academy of Science, 7. Dr. Angelika Hilbeck Senior Scientist & Lecturer Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Integrative Biology, Zurich, Switzerland. 8. Dr. Robert Mann Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry, University of Auckland (rtd) and Long-serving member NZ Govt. Toxic Substances Board (rtd.) 9. Professor Arpad Pusztai F.R.S.E. (Fellow of the Royal Society, Edinburgh) Protein chemist and biochemist (rtd.) and 10. Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini Head of Risk Group (MRSÓ-CNRS), Lab Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of Caen, France, international expert on GMOs and pesticides. They say, Bt Brinjal will have negligible benefit but would present an enormous hazard to human health. It would be profound disservice to Bangladesh if Bt Brinjal were allowed to enter her food supply. They emphasised on the health hazards. There are at least four mechanisms by which the introduction of the Bt toxin gene into the Brinjal genome can cause harm. These include (1) the random insertion of the Bt gene into the plant DNA and the resulting unintended consequences, (2) alterations in crop metabolism by the Bt protein that results in new, equally unintended and potentially toxic products, (3) the direct toxicity of the Bt protein, and (4) an immune response elicited by the Bt protein.

Allergies are complex responses of the immune system to foreign substances and vary widely between individuals in an unpredictable manner. Bt toxins have long been used as insecticidal sprays on a variety of crops, but the spray can be washed off the plant and is a less toxic form of the protein than that made by GE plants, which is inside all parts of the plant and therefore is eaten. The spray consists of spores of the Bt toxin that must be activated in the gut of the insect. In contrast, Bt toxin in Brinjal is a highly activated form of the Bt protein that does not require modification in the insect gut to become toxic. It is therefore much more potent than that used in sprays. Despite this major difference in Bt form and activity, and even though the spray is not ingested by farm workers, there is solid evidence that the Bt proteins elicit a strong immune response in some workers after a few months exposure, and it is likely that many more workers are affected, but associate their allergic response with the spray and decide to work elsewhere. Most importantly, it should be emphasized that the concentration and amount of Bt. toxin protein that people would eat in Bt Brinjal are thousands of times higher than the exposure levels of farm workers.

Animal studies have shown that Bt toxins directly cause tissue damage. Feeding mice Bt potatoes caused the appearance of structurally abnormal cells in the gut. Other studies reported histopathological changes in the kidney and liver of rats fed Bt corn, and changes in urea and protein levels in the urine of rats fed Bt rice. While there was no extreme pathology in any of these studies, they were all short term (up to 90 days) and done with healthy animals. The outcome may be quite different if the Bt protein is consumed by infirm, under nourished, aged, or very young individuals, for the body responds quite differently in individuals compromised by any of these conditions, and all groups will be eating Bt Brinjal. None of the safety testing of Bt Brinjal has taken this fact into account.

These very robust data clearly demonstrate how difficult it is to extrapolate negative data from short term feeding studies in healthy adult animals to real world situations. They also further emphasize the need for extreme caution before the irreversible introduction of Bt Brinjal into the food chain.

The most important point made by the International scientists is that the health of the Bangladesh population, if the introduction of Bt Brinjal is allowed, an enormous number of individuals are going to consume amounts of Bt toxin that are thousands of times higher than anytime previously in the short history of this GM technology. This population is extremely heterogeneous in genetic makeup, age, and also with respect to underlying health. It is the genetics and health status of the individual that determines his or her response to foreign proteins such as Bt toxin. Less healthy individuals are much more prone to negative toxic and immune reactions. Since the ability of Bt toxin to cause an allergic response in some individuals is unambiguous, it is virtually certain that within the vast Bangladesh population, a large number of people eating Bt Brinjal will become allergic to this foreign protein; this number cannot be predicted and some of the immune responses would likely be severe, causing anaphylaxis and possibly fatalities. Since there is no system for tracking these adverse reactions within any population, if Bt Brinjal is commercially grown, its genetic presence within a major calorie source for the Bangladesh population would be irreversible. Therefore its introduction must be prevented.

We hope the government will positively respond to the international scientists and prevent the introduction thereby saving the millions of its people from potential health hazards, save the environment from genetic pollution, and save the farmers from becoming dependent on companies for seeds.


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