Bangladesh to become guinea pig for Bt Brinjal

It is very unfortunate that Bangladesh government, which is now in Poll time period (next election is in January, 2014) has taken a step for a policy disregarding public opinion and which has serious implications for its people as consumers, for farmers and for environment. The National Committee on Biosafety (NCB) officially released four Bt brinjal, which is infused with pest-resistant gene. According to newspaper reports, the four varieties of BtBrinjal — Bt Brinjal-1 (Uttara), Bt Brinjal-2 (Kajla), Bt Brinjal-3 (Nayantara), and Bt Brinjal-4 (Iswardi local) — would first be released on limited scales as per a production manual following biosafety guidelines, according to newspaper reports [Daily Star, October 29, 2013]. Since July, 2013, there have been protests by environmental and farmers group, writ petitions in High court, human chains in capital city as well as at the district level, newspaper and electronic media campaigns, yet the government went ahead with the approval at a time when its legitimacy is questioned. The last date of the dissolution of the Parliament was 27th October, 2013. However, they have extended Parliament session upto 7th November.

Till now there is no official press release from the government, particularly from the Ministry of Environment about the approval, although the order of the approval is supposed to be gazetted. It is only through the newspaper journalists, who are taking particular interest in the issues, one can know about the decision. This shows that the government is maintaining secrecy over the decision. The question is why?

The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) which conducted the seven-year experiment since 2006 with the technical support of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) in which the American seed giant Monsanto had 26% stake. This is not a Bangladesh government initiative, it is part of the three-country (India, Philippines and Bangladesh) experiment based on technology developed and transferred by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Pvt Ltd (Mahyco). Commercialisation of Btbrinjal in India was halted by a ‘moratorium’ imposed by former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in February 2010.

In the Philippines, the Court of Appeals has upheld on 20 September the ruling preventing the government from conducting field testing of genetically modified, pest-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) talong (eggplant).The Court of Appeals (CA) court denied the motion for reconsideration filed by the respondents seeking to reverse its May 17 ruling stopping field testing for the plants. The writ of kalikasan and continuing writ of mandamus it had issued in favor of the petitioners were "justified and warranted."The petitioners Greenpeace South East Asia,  MASIPAG along with 15 other individuals won the last legal battle on the Writ of Kalikasan on Bt Talong in the appellate level. 

The process of taking the decision for approval was completed between mid-July to end of October, 2013. Media reported that the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) submitted application to the National Technical Committee for Crop Biotechnology (NTCCB) in mid July 2013 for the release of Bt brinjal in August, 2013. [Daily Star July 11 2013.  Brinjal modified: Bangladesh set to join elusive club of 28 GM crop growing countries]. 

According to media report, an expert committee has termed sound all ‘scientific findings’ concerning the country’s first genetically modified (GM) crop — Bt Brinjal — and was preparing its review report on those for forwarding it to the agriculture ministry [Daily Star, 17 September, 2013] . This meeting happened just two days before the High Court Hearing (19th September) on the Writ petitions against the approval.  The High rejected the petitions on 22nd September. Although UBINIG investigation in the six regional stations of BARI showed that the trials were not very satisfactory.

On 29 September, in another writ petition,the court asked the government to explain why taking initiative without assessment should not be declared illegal. The High Court directed the government not to release genetically modified crop Bt brinjal without assessing possible health risks.The court ordered Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), agriculture secretary and health secretary to submit a progress report by three months after conducting an independent research focusing on the health safety issues in line with the GM food standard set by Codex Alimentarius Commission, an organisation founded by the FAO and the WHO.

On receipt of the experts’ report, the National Technical Committee for Crop Biotechnology (NTCCB), headed by the agriculture secretary, was supposed to look into the report and then send it to the National Committee on Biosafety (NCB) for final approval.Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was also apprised of the Bt Brinjal developments on 10 September by the Agriculture Minister MatiaChowdhury.The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina chaired the meeting of the Executive Committee of National Economic Council and encouraged the agro-scientists to pursue research on better crop varieties. However, in August, 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. The major points in the letter were the followings:

(1)    There is lack of need. Brinjal is not a crop threatened by an overwhelming insect  infestation;

(2)    (2)  environmental risk: brinjal is native to Bangladesh and the GM genes would unquestionbly contaminate and degrade the native populations.

(3)    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.

(4)     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.

(5)    The 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, ProfessorGene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine Expertise in gene structure and function, and transgenic biotechnologies including human genetherapy. 2. Susan Bardoczu, DSc. ProfessorHuman Nutrition, GMO expert of the Ministry of Rural Development of Hungary (rtd), 3.  Dr. Pushpa M. BhargavaFormer 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 HerrenWorld 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 ofScience, 7. Dr. Angelika HilbeckSenior Scientist & LecturerSwiss 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 Brinjalgenome can cause harm. These include (1) the random insertion of the Bt gene into the plant DNA andthe resulting unintended consequences, (2) alterations in crop metabolism by the Bt protein thatresults in new, equally unintended and potentially toxic products, (3) the direct toxicity of the Btprotein, 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. Ifthe 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.

These letters were there before the meeting with the Prime Minister, but they simply ignored them. Media reports on the documents reviewed by the expert committee showed that “the Bt Gene has been expressed well in our home-grown brinjals and results have been found to be homogeneous,” and that Bt Brinjal was found to be nutritionally okay according to the nutritional tests, that were carried out at the Dhaka University. According to the Executive Chairman of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (Barc) DrWaisKabir the toxicological tests were done in internationally accredited labs in India, but did not mention whether it was done in the Mahyco sponsored labs.

Following the assessment, the committee sent the application to the Bio-safety Core Committee (BCC) on October 21 to get its comments and to be reported by 23rd October. The Core committee was given compiled toxicological test results from the accredited laboratories on mammals, fish, rabbits and result of nutritional composition analysis of Bt Brinjal. It did not seem to have reviewed any documents for environmental safety and biological pollution. UBINIG requested the Ministry several times whether these reports can be made public. The Ministry of Environment said it lies with Ministry of Agriculture.

By the last week of October, it was becoming clear that the government will give final approval to Bt Brinjal, no matter what the environmental groups are protesting against. The meeting of Biosafety Core Committee led by the Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) also comprising of relevant officials from the agriculture and health ministries, was held for two days (27 and 28 October)  and took decision in favour of approval. The sources of these information was mainly the Director General of BARI who was most keen to get the approval. However, the Ministry officials did not disclose the news to the media as it was expected to have an official announcement after a meeting with MOEF Hasan Mahmud and Agriculture Minister MatiaChowdhury. The reliable sources said the committee members felt that the since this was based on political decision it should be signed by the Ministers, rather by the bureaucrats.

Although the first news break came from the Daily Star on 29th October, an unofficial media partner of BARI, the other newspapers were told that the approval order was not signed on that day. On the same day, Dhaka Tribune reported that Bt Brinjal still undecided [Dhaka Tribune 29 October, 2013] It said, the Bio-safety Core Committee stopped short of announcing a decision on the introduction of Bt brinjal, a genetically modified variety of eggplant, after its meeting on 28th October.

The most curious part of this decision is that the committee has not disclosed to the media officially yet.

Through this Bangladesh has donated herself to be a guineapig for a GMO crop, that was not needed and that will affect millions of people as consumers as well as farmers.


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