Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The endangered brinjal

Bharat Dogra

There has been widespread and well-justified criticism of the recent decision of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to approve Bt brinjal for release. Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, eminent scientist who was appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the functioning of GEAC, has expressed shock at this rushed approval. He has called it a ‘disaster’ and ‘unethical’. Fortunately, the government can still take steps to prevent its commercial release in the market.
Maximum caution has to be exercised in the introduction of not only Bt brinjal but all Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and Genetically Modified (GM) crops. There is increasing evidence of serious health and environmental hazards of GMOs/GM crops.
This evidence was reviewed by the independent science panel, which consisted of senior scientists from 11 countries. It concluded that many GM crops contain gene products that are known to be harmful. For example, the Bt proteins that kill pests include potent immunogens and allergens. Food crops are increasingly being engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, drugs and vaccines in the open environment, exposing people to the danger of inappropriate medication and their harmful side effects.
Herbicides tolerant crops ~ accounting for a majority of all GM crops worldwide ~ are tied to the broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate and glufosinate ammonium. These have been linked to spontaneous abortions, birth defects and other health problems for human beings, animals and soil-organisms. GM varieties are unstable, with the potential to create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases and disrupt gene function in animal and human cells.
Earlier, several prominent scientists in the USA, including Nobel laureates, had formed the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists. It pleaded for caution in the commercial introduction of new genetically engineered products. The UCS released a study by Dr Jane Rissler and Dr Margaret Mellon which warned against the possibility of new viruses and diseases as well as proliferation of weeds. The risk increases in direct proportion to the number and variety of these crops. The fact that a transgenic crop has been approved as safe in the USA does not mean that risks do not exist in other countries and in different environment conditions.
The study titled ‘Perils Amidst the Promise’ by the UCS concluded that no company should be permitted to commercialise a transgenic crop in the United States until a strong government programme is in place. This programme must ensure risk assessment and control of all transgenic crops. It must give adequate attention to the centres of crop diversity in the USA and elsewhere in the world. The appropriate United Nations organisation should develop an international bio-safety protocol, which is necessary to ensure that developing countries, especially those harbouring centres of crop genetic diversity, can take protection against the risks of genetically engineered crops.
Ethical dilemma
Several scientists involved in studying the implications and impact of genetic engineering got together at the international conference on ‘Redefining of Life Sciences’ organised by the Third World Network at Penang, Malaysia. They issued a statement (the Penang Statement, or PS) which questioned the scientific basis of genetic engineering. It observed: “The new biotechnology based upon genetic engineering makes the assumption that each specific feature of an organism is encoded in one or a few specific, stable genes, so that the transfer of these genes results in the transfer of a discrete feature. This extreme form of genetic reductionism has already been rejected by the majority of biologists because it fails to take into account the complex interactions between genes and their cellular, extra-cellular and external environment that are involved in the development of all features. It is impossible to predict the consequences of transferring a gene from one type of organism to another in a significant number of cases. The limited ability to transfer identifiable molecular characteristics between organisms through genetic engineering does not constitute the demonstration of any comprehensive or reliable system for predicting all the significant effects of transposing genes.”
A technical report by Dr Charles Benbrook, former Executive Director of the board on agriculture of the US National Academy of Science, examined US agricultural data over a span of nine years. It concluded that the spread of GM crops actually led to an increase in the use of pesticide instead of the projected reduction.
Besides, there is the ethical dilemma faced by vegetarians who may find it difficult to select food when animal genes are introduced into plant genes. The choice becomes even more difficult ~ and not just for vegetarians ~ when even human genes are introduced into food crops, including rice. This dilemma is most difficult to resolve when GM foods are not specifically labelled, and in fact GM food companies try their best to avoid any legal requirement of specific labelling.

Source: The Statesman 20 October 2009

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