Six premier Indian science academies, given the task of evaluating Bt brinjal by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, have declared it safe, but their findings also say all genetically modified (GM) items pose a risk if the science behind them is flawed.
The academies, as part of their mandate, have made key recommendations, including allowing the use of GM crops to meet growing food demands.
However, they said, India’s food security is “too critical an area” to be left entirely to the private sector. Therefore, public sector organisations should be the main facilitators of GM technologies.
The launch of Bt brinjal, India’s first GM food crop, was aborted in February after a
safety debate broke out. While putting a moratorium on the genetically-engineered eggplant, the world’s first, Ramesh had said a decision to release it would have to be “responsible to both science and society”.
Ramesh had then appointed the academies to scrutinise Bt brinjal and give a rigorous opinion on GM crops.
K. Kasturirangan, Planning Commission member heading farm research, was asked to steer the project involving Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Medical Sciences, Indian National Academy of Engineering, Indian National Science Academy and National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, all New Delhi-based, and Allahabad-based National Academy of Sciences.
In GM crops, the genetic material (DNA) is altered to improve its qualities. Bt Brinjal, for instance, has been inserted with a bacterial protein so that it resists pests.
The academies, which have submitted their findings to the government, found no evidence that the protein used in creating Bt brinjal, Cry1Ac, is unsafe. “The same Bt protein present in another food crop has been consumed elsewhere in the world with no evidence of any scientifically established negative effect,” the report, reviewed by HT, states.
Some people can still be allergic to Bt brinjal, the findings say, just as some people develop allergies to common foods such as milk or nuts. So, no food can be declared 100 per cent safe for all from this viewpoint.
The findings, however, suggest the line between safe and unsafe GM products is very slim. Safety depends on how sound they are scientifically and how well they have been tested. Moreover, growers of GM crops need to comply with all mandatory guidelines for environment safety.