The Bt brinjal debate, the sufferings of science and my encounter with a man of power.
As the world debates over the GM issue and as the Government of India prepares its verdict on Bt Brinjal, my post on GM sits patiently in the draft box of my blog. But after attending a public hearing held by the Union minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, I felt this blogpost has waited in the drafts box far too long. Time to let the words (and emotions) flow.
Part I- Unweaving the rainbow: the funda of GM for a non-science person
Part II-The glitches
Part III- A personal account of a public hearing on GM held by the Union minister for Environment
Part IV- Possible Solutions
Part I- Unweaving the rainbow: the funda of GM for a non-science person
As this is my ‘science’ blog and as I feel very strongly for educating the lay person of the techniques and beauties of science, what else could Part I of this string of posts be other than the fundamentals of the science of GM?
Disclaimer- Although I am anti-GM, this post may indicate otherwise. This is because I am also a researcher and cannot help but appreciate the science behind it.
In the past few decades loads and loads of cool new stuff happened in the field of biology. What was so cool about it? Well, we found out a lot about how organisms do all the things that organisms do, that the secret of life resides in a molecule that resides in all of our cells-DNA. A few years later, we got really good at working with DNA to the extent that we could remove a piece of DNA from one organism and put it into another organism. Now that is some awesome stuff. Why? Because certain pieces of DNA called genes are the ones that are responsible for all the characters an animal or a plant has. They are the ones that decide if the plant will bear yellow flowers of green ones, or whether we’ll have black hair or blonde. Genes can decide a whole host of other characters. They are the ones that give a scorpion its venom and a rose its fragrance. Now if we could take these genes and put them in another organism then that organism can produce whatever the gene codes for. Theoretically, we could make a scorpion smell like a rose and a rose sting like a scorpion. Imagine the possibilities! Well the scientist guys didn’t just imagine the possibilities they set to work and started doing something about this new found technique.
They turned their attention to a number of problems plaguing the world. But we will be focusing only on the problems of agriculture.
POINT 1: Pesticide free food
Crops the world over are sprayed with pesticides to protect them from insects that eat the crops. The ingredient used in some pesticides is derived from a certain bacterial strain that lives in the soil called Bacillus thurengensis (or Bt). It contains a gene that allows it to make a certain kind of poison. The poison made by this bacterium has been used to kill insects since the 1950s. But the problem with this poison is that it does not last for long. The poison degrades rapidly after exposure to sunlight. So it needs to be sprayed many times. The spraying of pesticides on crops causes enormous damage to the environment.
What if we make crops that don’t need spraying of pesticides on them? What if we insert a poison gene into our crop of interest? The pests that eat it will die after eating the crop! So no spraying of pesticides at all! We won’t have to eat pesticide-laden food and the farmer’s work will be reduced!
Well the obvious question that comes to mind is- what will happen to the people who eat this brinjal? Won’t they too be poisoned? Now the people who have conducted research on this Bt poison tell us that this is where the beauty of the Bt poison lies. We needed to spray the pesticides often because its efficacy is reduced after exposure to sunlight. Since it degrades very easily, we don’t have to worry about it. When it gets heated, in other words, cooked, the poison disintegrates and is not longer functional. Well this is what the scientists say, and this is where some of the concerns lie. (To read more on it go to Part II).
POINT 2: Round-up
On a crop field there is competition between the crop we want to grow and some unwanted crops that grow along with our crop of interest. These unwanted crops are called weeds. If we spray herbicides on the field, the weed dies, but our crop of interest also dies. This is because the herbicide cannot differentiate between a plant we want and a plant we don’t want. It is basically a plant killer, kills any plant that comes its way. Well then, could we not insert a gene into our plant of interest? A gene that gives our plant resistance to the herbicide, so that after the spraying of the herbicide, the weeds die but our plant does not. Again, a very good concept. So the genticists, molecular biologists and biotechnologists set to work and created plants that are Round-up Ready. Roundup is a commonly used herbicide all over the world. Now we have soy and maize that does not die even if we spray herbicides on them.
POINT 3: Golden rice
People the world over, especially those from poorer regions of the world do not get adequate supply of nutritious food. For example, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in Asia and Africa. What if we created a crop that is eaten as a staple that has vitramin A in it? So scientists made what is called Golden rice. Rice that is enriched with vitamin A. You eat the rice, and you automatically eat vitamin A. Novel. Then there are other possibilities as well, enrich some other vegetable like tomatoes with vaccines etc.
So you see the science in itself is not bad, and it does have potential. However, there is more than meets the eye. Hence, part II:
Part II- The glitches
If we insert a poison gene into our crop of interest to kill the pests that eat it, then won’t we too eat the poison gene when we eat the plant? Well, duh! But, the GM companies say that the poison disintegrates when the crop is cooked. So if we eat cooked food, we won’t be affected. Now what if we go to a large party or a roadside dhaba where they haven’t cooked the food well? Won’t we be injesting poison-laden food? I have heard that Ayurvedic preparations require raw brinjal. What happens to the poison then?
Organisms have a tendency to become resistant to things that can kill them. That’s the reason pharma companies have to come up with new antibiotics all the time. Because pathogens gain resistance to our medicines. So in the world of agriculture, the pests can become resistant to the poison, or the weeds can become resistant to the herbicide. Then we’ll again have to knock on the doors of the Agri-companies to give us an even more potent killer and the cycle shall continue. You see, this will not solve any of our problems because new problems will emerge. We are doing this with antibiotics and now we will do this with our food as well.
Genes can get transferred from one organism to another. It is called horizontal gene transfer. This, according to me is the most dangerous aspect of the whole business. First of all, horizontal gene transfer can allow the ‘weeds’ to gain herbicide resistance if the genes from our crop enter into the weed. Such horizontal gene transfers have been recorded before. So then you’ll have weeds that are resistant to our herbicides.
And let us not forget another important point here. India is home to two biodiversity hotspots- the western ghats and the forest of the North-east. There are thousands of species of plants and animals found in these parts that are found nowhere else on earth. – they are endemic to these regions. What if the gene coding for the Bt poison enters a plant found only in the western ghats? Won’t that plant then become poisonous? And what if the plant happens to be the only larval host plant of say, an endemic butterfly? Won’t the butterfly larvae die if they eat the plant? After all, Bt is designed for pests belonging to the lepidopteran family- the same family that includes all butterflies. You may agrue that when you eat fish, the fish genes enter your stomach but you don’t turn into a fish. So the genes will not transfer into another organism. I am not talking about a gene transfer occurring tomorrow. I am talking about consequences that may show themselves hundreds of years from now. That’s how evolution works. Pollen from a Bt crop getting transferred to its cousin in the phylogenetic tree, from there to yet another cousin and so on. Can the scientists who designed Bt plants assure us, can they cross their hearts and tell us that never ever will the foreign gene ever be transferred in this way? ‘Never’ as in never in their life time, my life time, my children’s life time or my children’s children’s lifetime?
The companies that have been promoting GM crops (Like Monsanto, Du Pont, Syngenta) have been telling us that GM will give us better yields. GM increases yields – well, not really. What it does is, the farmer does not loose any crop to the pests and thus, gets a higher yield. But what if in a given season there isn’t any outbreak of a pest at all? Then the yield from a GM crop will be the same as the yield from a non-GM crop!
Another thing: there have been reports that the component in the herbicide- gyphosate is playing with the roots of the plants. So even if our crop is herbicide resistant, there is a side-effect. Our plant is unable to absorb nutrients from the soil in the presence of the herbicide. This is because it is causing the growth of some disease causing bacteria to grow in the soil which don’t allow the plant to absorb nutrients. So what do we get? Well, we sure don’t get higher yields!!
How much vitamin A does Golden rice have anyway? It will contribute to only 8% to 12.5% of the vitamin A requirements of children of age groups 1to 3 yrs, 12.5% to 18% for children 4 to 6 years, and 18% to 23%, and 15% to 23 % for adult males females respectively. Do we spend so much energy and effort for a technology that does not really deliver then?
People are sceptical of genes from various organims being present in their food. Most people would not be too happy to learn that their cauliflower has scorpion genes in it.
Well, I am not against scorpion genes in my cauliflower. A gene is a gene is a gene. It does not matter where it is coming from. When you eat fish, the fish genes enter your stomach but you don’t turn into a fish. But what is the use of a scorpion gene if it’s not helping me or the farmer or the world at large at all??
Part III- Meeting a man of power- A personal account of a public hearing on Bt held by the Union minister for Environment
Jairam Ramesh the Union Minister for Environment and Forests has been traveling country-wide and listening to people about the Bt issue. The last of a the series of hearings was held in Bangalore on the 6th of February, 2010. The meeting was scheduled for 10 in the morning. I arrived at 8 for fear of not getting a seat in the auditorium. I was greeted by a sight I had only seen on TV so far- people chanting slogans, carrying posters and displaying brinjals. A charged atmosphere!
Finally I felt I was doing something other than just writing blog posts.
Although I have been a citizen of this country, practicing my right to vote I have never felt any attachment towards the people who run this country. The babus belonged to another world, for me they were only two dimensional figures from the news channel.
The audi gates opened and we rushed in. Noise, chaos, pandemonium; and a man who sat silently watching us all, hiding a smile.
After a lot of time spent in calmingpeople down, the meeting began. Not knowing kannada, telegu, malayalam or tamil I could not understand a lot of the things being said, and I lost out on a lot of points. But the man beside me was kind enough to interpret many of the things people spoke. Then I was given my 5 minutes of fame. I spoke about the potential danger to the Western ghats. Then I sat back in my chair and looked at a minister who was interacting with the public, who knew papers from journals like Nature, who knew the names of the people that addressed him and recalled “Oh so you are the one who has sent me those hundreds of emails”, “You have misquoted so-and-so report in your email ma’am”, in short a man who had done his homework. Call me naïve, but I felt for the first time that the Bt issue was in just hands, for once.
I agreed with his observations about the meeting itself- People really believe that they are right. But they don’t want to listen to the other side! The farmers and the scientists are not talking to each other! Scientists should not be arrogant and the common man should not fear science. It strengthened my conviction that science education in this country needs a radical facelift.
In case you need more convincing ask yourselves this:
In case Monsanto had conducted long term trials and done everything in the book to get a clean chit. Would the people then welcome the GM company into our country? Or would the feeling of distrust still continue?
At the end of the meeting I realized I don’t need to be an activist, I don’t need to be part of an NGO and I can still make a difference. People can say all that they want, everything from the Minister being a Monsanto man, the hearings being only a farce, that the decision for the Bt issue has already been taken and this is only a circus. People can continue saying “So what if he heard you out, who heard you out? God?”I can only shrug my shoulders and say, hey well, at least I tried.
Part IV- Possible Solutions
I think a lot of possibilities emerged from the meeting. I agree with people who said we need to conduct long term field trials on GM before we release it in the market. Pharma companies do it, so why not do it for GM? The reason why long term studies have not been conducted so far on GM is because our laws have not caught up with technology yet. Nowhere in the law book does it say that a food item should undergo the strict trials conducted at the scale of clinical trials. So the food companies haven’t done it!
Then lets make a law that says GM food should undergo the stringent safety regulations before it hits the market.
There was news in the meeting that the Indian Institute for Horticultural Research has produced Bt brinjal as well. This would mean we don’t have to pay people sitting overseas for our seeds. The fact that such seeds are being produced in India itself was news for the Minister himself and I am sure he will look into the issue.