Posted by: yashada | February 7, 2010

To B(t) or not to B(t) ?

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

GLITCH 1:

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?

GLITCH 2:

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.

GLITCH 3:

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?

GLITCH 4:

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!!

GLITCH 5:

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.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Oh My God…I have been receiving your mails regarding this issue and mails from a lot of people otherwise as well…Only being the typical student,believing myself to be more busy than i actually am,I read the topic only partially and read the news and heard and saw only what i believed important…This post is fabulous Yashada…Did a lot more than the forwards i was getting…Opened my eyes and ears and captured my interest….Will definitely do my homework and get back to you on this…Well written!

    • hey thanks a lot aditi, for actually reading through the terribly long post and then appreciating it. I was afraid that the sheer size of the post may deter people from reading through the whole thing 🙂 Ya, please read up more on it and try to think of what you can do about it and try to add your inputs. There is (invariably) a lot of stuff that I haven’t added and you can get the full stories by searching on google or reading through good journals. Especially check this website: http://www.csa-india.org/downloads.htm they have put up a good case against GM. But make sure you read the other side as well by reading the pro GM material on otehr sources. Thanks again! 🙂

  2. Great post yoyo
    Do watch the documentary – Food Inc (its a refreshingly horrifying take on the same topic)

    Although I dont have any arguments or counter-arguments, I can only say as my personal opinion that the point of field trials like Pharma companies is the most well formed argument to this issue yet. But there have been examples where pharma companies have tried to release stuff with adequate legal jargon to get themselves off the radar when they had clearly sold inappropriate medications. There will always be a loop hole (unfortunately).

    If not scientifically, legally GM foods might find their way into the market. I would personally love to see some differentiation (apart from visual) in labeling such products when they are available for sale. Unfortunately, we have a massive unorganized market for vegetables in India and this labeling would be a self defeating exercise, since veggies can travel to any nukkad through these small vendors.

    What’s our defense then, if we really want to eat only organically grown food over GM food? How do we know, when we are buying these veggies?

    • Hey raunak you have recommended Food Inc before, sadly I couldn’t get it anywhere last time I searched. 😦

      Ya well, there will always be loopholes and people will always find a way to profit.

      What do you mean by differentiation between GM and non-GM ‘apart from visual’? Jairam Ramesh has ruled out the possibility of labelling since it simlpy will be, as you said, a self-defeating exercise. One possible way would be to label the organically grown food. We already find organic stuff in the market that is appropriately labelled. I suppose this is because the makers are at an advantage by advertising it in this case, unlike the producers of GM. However as of now, the market for organic is small and the produce from organic is also very small, so that’s manageable. I don’t know if this might work in the future. But then there is also the usual day-to-day food we eat that is produced by hybrid varieties and pesticides. I don’t know how one can differentiate between that and GM. So you see there are loads of questions and issues that need addressing, and there is a need for an organized system to be in place before we accept GM. Lets not be hasty and make mistakes we can never undo.

  3. Hey Yashada .. It was indeed a beautifully drafted post that a non science person shall understand but with all the nitty-gritties included ..
    I have been reading abt this in the newspapers and over the net, but my understanding regarding the issue was not clear, and too many technical terms in the articles always bored me to read further .. Thanks a lot for simplifying it for me 🙂 And great writing, as always 🙂

  4. Bravo. I am in Olympia, Washington, USA, and just wanted to say I admire your clear writing and thinking — and that you are now world famous! 🙂

  5. Well written, Yashada. Will respond to the content later.

  6. haha! thanks!
    ya thats the funda about push button publishing, anyone can be world famous! 😛

  7. Hi,Yashada……congrats for writing such wonderfull information in simple and lucid language for everybody.
    Progrss of science has made the human race different than other species.It is good for our survival but GM food is bit to much against nature,isn’t it?
    Natural selections remains a truth…evolution is a continued process then nature is going to react back to all our efforts,we may not be knowing the direction…..???
    If “Specialization leads to Exctinction” is law of nature…then our exctiction is for sure with all the scientific discoveries…cardiac arrest, cancer, aids… we do not know the next…
    No more GM food !!!

  8. Yashada, you have done a fabulous job. you have brought ‘n’ number of points on discussion. There are lot of things on which i have to think to reply this post. I am against GM food. Point on trials of GM food is really good, but it will take lot of time to start a trial as no country has rules and laws for this. But we can really think on it, rather we should think and implement it as early as possible because GM food is already in the market and it might rule the market soon.

    Another thing which i like is, you have actually ‘done’ something, something beyond forwerding e-mails. Keep it up!!

    I am really inspired by your writing, so i will also reply to this post in parts, (this is part 1) lol… As i earlier said, I have to read more on this, so i will come back to this post again.

    But i must say, its really well written post, as usual…

  9. Hi yashada,
    its a really nice summary of the real encounter with the real issue in a very friendly language. This is the first time i have actually went through the whole of the issue of BT Brinjal. Thanks a lot for the info. I would love to know more about the steps actually taken and would also like to find out more on this and share. I am MSc 2 student in Sophia college.

    • @ maruti- Hi, I’m very glad you read through the entire article and what’s more, found it interesting. 🙂
      You have mentioned in your comment “I would love to know more about the steps actually taken”, steps taken for what? Did you mean the trials they have conducted so far? Or the steps taken for organizing the public hearings? Or the steps taken to come to the conclusion that Bt brinjal is not ready yet for the market?
      Please could you clarify it a little bit more, and we can have further discussions.

  10. Hi Yashada – Great post! Thank you. I delayed reading it until now because I, as a total non-scientist, was a little fearful. So, kudos for making the science of this accessible.
    I’m a firm non-GM person. For all the reasons you mention plus the bullying tactics used by Monsanto and the fact that GM agriculture is driving even more farmers into poverty (and suicide). It’s great that India has at least put a moratorium on the first ever vegetable GM crop – even if it was Jairam Ramesh who did it (he’s not popular in Bhopal).
    Re Big Pharma – they don’t always do the research either. The most recent (I think) case is the vaccine for cervical cancer for adolescent girls.

    I’d like to forward this to a science program in Canada called Quirks and Quarks – http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/, or at least put you in touch with them. What do you think? It’s a program dedicated to making science accessible to the lay person.

    • “I’d like to forward this to a science program in Canada called Quirks and Quarks – http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/, or at least put you in touch with them. What do you think?”
      Oh my gosh! It would be wonderful if you could do that! 🙂 🙂

      Didn’t know Jairam Ramesh’s link with Bhopal. Will read up on it.
      Thanks a ton for the reply! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: