Genetic Engineering and Bt Stuff. Scary? Maybe

5 November, 2009 at 00:20 Leave a comment

Suman Sahai (a geneticist doctor) writes a cry-wolf kinda piece on how Bt Brinjal can Awaken a Sleeping Poison in Deccan Chronicle today. Apart from knowing that Bt stands proper for Bacillus thuringiensis (small ‘t’ and all that – wonky scientists I know) and that most folks I know have an aversion to “hybrid” vegetables, fruits and meat although we do not know the source of the food we eat, I have no real clue. There is in general a kind of fear as if this kind of a thing can happen…

While Suman is a gender neutral name, I can sense that this Sahai is a woman. All she does is talk some mumbo-jumbo and complain. And complain. Taste this…

What, you may ask, is common between potatoes, tomatoes, brinjal, chilli, datura, tobacco and the deadly nightshade (belladonna)? They all belong to a plant family called Solanaceae. The Solanaceae family contains a number of important agricultural plants as well as many psychoactive and toxic plants. Solanaceae species are rich in complex chemicals called alkaloids and contain some of the most poisonous plants known to mankind. They produce alkaloids in their roots, leaves and flowers. These alkaloids can be hallucinogens, stimulants or outright toxic. Farmers have been working for thousands of years to domesticate wild plants like those of the Solanaceae family, to make them safe for eating. This continues to this day and age.

Now brinjal, a member of this family, has been genetically engineered (GE) to produce a toxin to protect itself against a particular pest. This seems to be a process working to reverse several thousand years of efforts to detoxify natural plants to make them fit for human consumption which could be dangerous since disturbing their genetic material through the process of inserting new gene constructs containing a battery of genes – including the toxin producing Bt gene – may trigger off metabolic processes that have been lying dormant. There are apprehensions that not only could new toxins develop but that old toxins that were removed by selective breeding may reappear. Disturbing cell metabolism of species that are naturally genetically hardwired to produce toxins, is likely to call up old plant toxins in species.

Testing for food safety is key in GE plants; it becomes more so with the Solanaceae family. At present biotechnology companies rely on the concept of “substantial equivalence” to demonstrate the safety of genetically engineered foods. In this method, the overall chemical composition of the genetically engineered food is compared to an equivalent conventional food. If there is no significant difference between the two, the GE plant is considered to be safe. Mahyco seed company has also tested its Bt brinjal in the same way. However, “substantial equivalence” is a highly contested paradigm, favored by the biotech industry but rejected by most countries. This is because there is no mechanism in such an approach to detect unexpected or unintended changes like new toxic compounds in cells.

She does not stop there. She yaps and yaps and yaps about food labelling, Codex Alimentarius (that is a mouthful), Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), consumers right to informed choice (yeah right), consumer protection act (oh, stop the tickling), identity preservation, rural awareness and what not. If I were in the same room, I would ask her to just zip it and shut up. She seems to be the only geneticist in the whole wide world who seems to know about GE foods and Bt crops and that everyone else out there are in bed with big corporates to kill off the human species by poisoniing with Bt brinjal. As some of the comments have said, such kind of doubts were and will be there before every scientific advancement of agriculture, like hybrids. The gene modified in brinjal or cotton is only poisonous for the insects/borers not humans. Latest hybrids and GE fruits and vegetables are supposed to be a proof of successful experiments and progress in the field of agricultural science giving rise to bigger, colourful and plentiful produce. It could be that they might cause health problems in the future and when it happens, we will still not be able to isolate the cause. If due testing has been done, and there is no counter evidence, I am all for food security needs of overgrowing population. Of course, natural things are the best. Everybody knows that but sadly, there is a limit to that (look at sad staggering figures of malnutrition) and it would be an awful waste of human intellect if we cannot manipulate nature to solve our problems.

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Entry filed under: Citizen-Journalism, CWorks, Economy, Health, India, News-Media, Research, WebXP.

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