Thursday, July 3, 2008

GM field trials: leaving no room for assessment

The data on heat stability studies carried out on Bt protein in brinjal serve to highlight the serious lapses in the way the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) examines the biosafety data of genetically modified plants, leading to overlooking of key facts.

Heat stability study is conducted to show how the Bt protein gets destroyed when it is cooked. This study is done to demonstrate the safety of genetically modified (GM) food.

The summary of the study by the company states that Bt protein found before cooking is absent once it is cooked, in the case of Bt brinjal. Oops, the slip shows — Bt protein is reported to be present even in non-GM brinjal before cooking!

“It is ridiculous that the data shows Bt protein in non-GM brinjal,” said Dr. P.M. Bhargava, the Supreme Court nominee to the GEAC.
Unfair to mistrust

The minutes of the 85th GEAC meeting, while defending its policies, had stated: “…it will be unfair to mistrust the samples and data generated by the applicant, without any basis.”

In the meeting last week, the GEAC had agreed to have a review meeting for which scientists, NGOs and all others would be invited to assess all aspects of GM crops. “Apart from looking at the methods for determining the safety of GM crops that are currently undergoing field tests, all biosafety and environmental data would be looked into, including new data on biosafety,” said Dr. Bhargava.

The review meeting, if it is ever held, is sure to expose the way GEAC has been indiscriminately permitting seed companies to conduct field trials in gross violation of the guidelines, and not penalising the companies for such violations.

Take for instance the highly critical communication sent by Prof. T.K. Bose, Member of the West Bengal State Agriculture Commission, to Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Co Ltd, Mumbai (Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a stake) in January this year.

It stated: “… The Government of West Bengal has been informed through e-mail that Mahyco has been conducting trials on Bt bringal in West Bengal in 2007. The matter was never communicated to the State… It is very unfortunate and I am extremely sorry to know that Mahyco is now also determined to contaminate the unique germplasm of brinjal in West Bengal…”

Even in the case of Bt okra, Mahyco had started a trial in Nadia District, West Bengal, in September last year based on the permission of the panchayat. The State’s permission came only later this year. Same is the case with Bt rice trial conducted in 2006. The State came to know of the trial much later.

The report submitted by the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya (BCKV), the State Agricultural University of West Bengal which was responsible for evaluating the field trials, brought out the unethical ways in which Mahyco conducted the trials. The report observed:
Finished stage

“Rice and okra trials were almost at finished stage and the entire field was at over mature and drying stage when the State Agriculture University (SAU) went for assessing the field trials.”

This meant that the University, which went for field assessment in about 10 days after it was informed of the field trials, could make no meaningful assessment.

“The location of the GM rice was in a rice cultivation area and the okra trials in a vegetable growing area.” The guidelines clearly state that open field trials cannot be conducted in a crop cultivation area. It finally noted: “The farmer, whose land was used, was totally unaware of the consequences of GM rice cultivation.”

The review meeting is now looked upon by many where such discrepancies can be highlighted.

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