The Specture of Bt Brinjal

Mae-Wan Ho

One hundred civil society organisations representing farmers, indigenous communities, consumers, women, scientists, and/or promoting sustainable development and biosafety have written a letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to oppose the commercialisation of a genetically modified (GM) eggplant (complete letter here: php? aid=1028). Known locally as Bt-Brinjal, the GM eggplant contains a synthetic insect-killing toxin similar to Cry 1 Ac from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (hence the acronym Bt) targeted at the fruit and shoot borer. Bt toxins are already known to have many off-target effects, including toxicity to beneficial pest predators, animals and human cells.

The Bt Brinjal approved for commercial growing in Bangladesh originated from Mahyco-Monsanto, but the varieties approved were developed by scientists in Bangladesh. The company tried to commercialise Bt Brinjal in India several years ago and failed. The risk-assessment dossier submitted by the company essentially contained no studies on biosafety, and that only came to light when the Indian Supreme Court ordered the company to release the raw data.

The letter pointed out that Bangladesh has a vast native diversity of Brinjal. As Brinjal is largely open-pollinated, transgene contamination poses a great threat. There is also the issue of safety. On 29 September 2013, the High Court of Bangladesh ruled that the government should not release Bt brinjal without assessing the health risks, and ordered the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, the agriculture secretary and the health secretary to submit a report within three months, after conducting independent research on health safety in line with standards set down by the Codex Alimentarius.

An independent analysis carried out by eminent international scientists and submitted to the Prime Minister, concluded that "Bt Brinjal will have negligible benefit but would present an enormous hazard to human health. It would be profound disservice to Bangladesh if Bt Brinjal were allowed to enter her food supply.... There are at least four mechanisms by which the introduction of the Bt toxin gene into the Brinjal genome can cause harm. These include (1) the random insertion of the Bt gene into the plant DNA and the resulting unintended consequences, (2) alterations in crop metabolism by the Bt protein that results in new, equally unintended and potentially toxic products, (3) the direct toxicity of the Bt protein, and (4) an immune response elicited by the Bt protein."

Civil society organisations in Bangladesh have asked to see toxicological test results as well as nutritional composition analysis of Bt Brinjal submitted to the Biosafety Core Committee, but in vain. Nor has there been any public consultation on the issue before the decision was taken to commercialise the GM crop.

Bt Brinjal is already notorious in the region. In India, a moratorium was imposed after a series of public hearings and consultations. The then environment minister Jairam Ramesh said: "It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjal, till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in Brinjal in our country."

Known as Bt talong in the Philippines, the Court of Appeals on 20 September 2013 upheld its decision (17 May 2013) to stop field trials in the country based on the constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology.

More than 20 Indian organisations in Kolkata protested against the commercial release of Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh. Tushar Chakraborty, a molecular biologist, was one of the 250 scientists from across India who endorsed a letter addressed to the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urging him to stop open air release of GMOs. Chakraborty said the release in Bangladesh was a "threat to India" because it would contaminate Indian Brinjal crops.

It is vital to keep Bt Brinjal out of the region altogether as it is the centre of origin and biodiversity for Brinjal, which is a major component of local diets.
—Third World Network Features

Vol. 46, No. 48, Jun 8 - 14, 2014