Bt Brinjal, continued

A considerably updated version of the opinion piece by Gautam Menon and myself, that I previously posted here, has been published in Current Science [link corrected — 8/1/2014].

As far as the professionalism (or lack of it) of the report goes, I have nothing to add. The disappointing thing is that there has been no further reaction from the academies since we wrote the letter, and ours is the only piece on the subject in this edition of Current Science. It has disappeared from the mainstream media, too. Since writing that letter, the best piece on the subject that I have seen is this one by Latha Jishnu. The article leads with a picture of a fortress-like INSA in New Delhi with forbiddingly high gates, and a security guard apparently trying to push the photographer away.

A letter is circulating among some scientists requesting recipients to write to the Prime Minister to dismiss the Presidents of all the academies. I felt, when I saw this letter, that this is an extreme reaction. But now I’m not so sure. In any case, why do we need three science academies? For a country of our size, our scientific accomplishments are modest. But of course we can’t reasonably select one of these three to be “the” academy for Indian science. So perhaps it’s time to shutter them all? What purpose, as Vijay asks in my earlier post (attributing the quote to Feynman), do the academies serve other than electing their own fellowships?

Neither the report, nor our letter, really addressed the question of whether Bt brinjal should be introduced in India. Our letter focussed on the professionalism of the academies’ approach. The academies’ report repeated (nearly verbatim) the previously-printed opinions of one man, and thus taught us nothing new.

I am not an expert on this matter but my feeling is that the science of it is not really too doubtful. While I’d like to see an answer on the question of toxins in brinjal being expressed due to regulatory or metabolic changes, on the whole I expect the vegetable to be harmless. And it is certainly an admirable thing to want to reduce the use of pesticides.

My worry, in a word, is Monsanto — who, in partnership with Mahyco, are behind the Bt Brinjal push. Previously they have not shown themselves to be good public citizens. One of the most egregious cases was of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, whose canola (rapeseed) farm got contaminated with GM Canola from a neighbouring farm: Monsanto claimed ownership of his entire crop. The case went up to the Canadian Supreme Court, which ruled that Monsanto did own the gene in question but Schmeiser did not infringe and owed no penalties. Read this interview with Schmeiser, where he details further legal run-ins with Monsanto.

Ownership of a living organism is not something I am comfortable with. What Monsanto did was not very different, conceptually, from what farmers have done for millennia — crossbreeding species to get new species with new properties. Only the technology is new and allows them to introduce bacterial genes into eukaryotes. Meanwhile, India’s farmers, like farmers everywhere historically, have always re-used their own seed for replanting: to tell them that they don’t own their own seeds goes against the fundamentals of farming. And false claims, like the one against Schmeiser, are a very real possibility. Legal recourse is generally only for the rich. Percy Schmeiser, despite his legal victories, was left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills — even though he hired only one lawyer and Monsanto hired up to nineteen. In a poor country like India, putting farmers at the mercy of Monsanto can be disastrous.

There are many other unsavoury stories about Monsanto, many of which were summarised in a hard-hitting movie called “The world according to Monsanto”. While the movie (which I saw some time ago) is not a shining example of impartiality, I see little evidence elsewhere to refute the basic message: that Monsanto is self-centred and socially irresponsible, and values its profits more than the rights of farmers.

As for the pesticide reduction, this may be a short-term effect: pests would probably, eventually, develop resistance. It would take time, but that’s not good news. If Bt brinjal does win over farmers and dominate the market, any pest that develops resistance could decimate the crop. This has happened to other monocultures, notably the banana in Latin America — the Gros Michel cultivar was wiped out by Panama disease, and its replacement, the Cavendish, is under threat too. (Again, we are lucky to have a diverse variety of bananas in this country.)

And there’s the culinary consideration: we have dozens of varieties of brinjal, and we do not want them all to be replaced by Bt Brinjal. At best, we would like it to be one of the many varieties on the market.

But if we don’t want Bt Brinjal to succeed beyond a niche role, why are we considering introducing it at all?

I hope the answer is not: because Monsanto has lots of money and lobbying power.

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8 Comments

  1. gaddeswarup

     /  October 25, 2010

    There is also a report in EPW:
    http://epw.in/epw/uploads/articles/15302.pdf

    Reply
  2. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  October 26, 2010

    Gaddeswarup – thanks for the link!

    The more the silence goes on, the more disturbing I find it.

    Reply
  3. gaddeswarup

     /  October 26, 2010

    I think that it is not too bad compared to the academic response to the nuclear liabilty bill. Some activists and competent scientists are taking interest. The minister seems ok at the moment. He solicited reports from outside. One of the activists seems to have anticipated the report by the academicians and had Andow report ready ( she might have even asked for one his reports). Slowly I hope that these people will know about each other’s efforts and keep track of the progress.

    Reply
    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  October 26, 2010

      Well, I am guessing the nuclear liability bill is not a scientific issue, more a legal / societal issue. But the same is largely true, in my opinion, of Bt Brinjal.

      Reply
  4. Rahul

     /  November 2, 2010

    I am not an expert on Bt Brinjal or any other GM food but at some point I tried to educate myself a bit on this issue and wrote a post on it, for whatever it’s worth.

    Reply
  5. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  November 2, 2010

    Rahul – thanks for the reminder, which I shouldn’t have needed since I did participate in that discussion. Indeed there is a lot of pseudoscience in the anti-GM arguments, but also some real concerns.

    Reply
  1. An apology of a justification | E's flat, ah's flat too
  2. Recent links on the academies’ saga | E's flat, ah's flat too

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