M.S. Swaminathan: No Urgency for BT Brinjal

Agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan tells Forbes India why India needs an independent regulatory authority for GM research

Published: Feb 20, 2010 08:37:40 AM IST
Updated: Feb 22, 2010 04:52:44 PM IST
M.S. Swaminathan: No Urgency for BT Brinjal
Image: Amit Verma
M.S. Swaminathan, Chairman, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation

M.S. Swaminathan
Age: 85
Title: Member of Parilament, Rajya Sabha; Chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation
Career: Scientific leader of the Green Revolution; Co-chairman of the UN Millennium Task Force on Hunger between 2002 and 2005
Interests: Gardening and cricket

There is a feeling that the need for political consensus has drowned the voices of scientists about the safety of BT Brinjal.
There is need for more tests. Tests have largely been done by the company. There has been no independent verification. In many countries there is a need for independent verification of data.
Biotech is a very powerful tool. We should not deny ourselves the benefits of it. But then, when it comes to food crops, risks and benefits have to be weighed in a way that public has confidence that risks have been considered.

US, for example, has three independent mechanisms for verification. The Environmental Protection Agency studies the environmental aspect. Federal Drug Administration studies all aspects of human health, short term, long term and so on.

The US system is also such that if something goes wrong, if someone can prove that you get cancer by eating this product, the punishment is very high there — $20 billion to $30 billion. It’s fair and swift. So, companies are also very careful in the US.

But what if these products get mired in discussions, controversies at the end as it’s happening to BT Brinjal?
There is no urgency here. It’s not that if you postpone this variety of brinjal for another year, you lose anything. It’s not a food security crop.

I see three positive outcomes from all these discussions. One is general enlightenment of public. They have been getting concentrated dose of education in terms of understanding of GM crops.

Secondly, companies are learning that in a democratic society political leadership, general public and media have to be taken on board. I can’t say, “I am a scientist and you don’t know anything at all”. People won’t accept that.

Third is that government is realising that there is the need for regulatory authority in our country, which is very professionally competent, which can weigh risks and benefits without putting anything under the carpet, which has its own testing labs, so that it can give independent verification.

Is there a chance of big business domination in agriculture?
I don’t think there is a risk of big business dominating Indian agriculture. Holdings in India are small. There are 115 million farming families, 25 percent of world’s farming population. A few big business - at best they can control some areas. That’s why Jairam Ramesh has been talking about public funded research in bio technology.

Farmer is ultimate judge of the value of a crop. Until you raise it commercially, you won’t know. Farmers will like BT Brinjal, if it’s going to reduce his cost. But today its not that risk which has come up. It’s consumption risk that has become more important than cultivation risk.

Do you think things could have been done differently?
There should have been much more public education. In Switzerland, some years ago, there was the referendum on GM research. The result was an overwhelming no to GM. Then what scientists did was, they went to the streets, they did a massive education programme. Next referendum was in favour of GM research. Scientists realised, in a democratic society you can’t take people for granted. In Switzerland, there is a referendum for a lot of things. But then, Switzerland is a small country. India is too big.

Personally, do you feel it’s safe to consume BT Brinjal?
I can’t say because it’s not a question of astrology. Scientists should not predict the future. They should shape the future. I would like to shape the future, and that’s what we try to do in our own foundation: For example, developing varieties that are resistant to sea water.


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(This story appears in the 05 March, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • K. S. Murty

    Like Telugu soap operas on tv we cannot come to a conclusion on yes or no to BT Brinjal. However one thing is clear that some people and Scientists have always been envious of Dr. M.S.

    on Sep 26, 2011
  • Balaji

    I would like to know what does urgency mean? Its been used very loosely by Dr. MS and of course Jairamji. If somebody is concerned about urgency they should have tried to understand, respect and given guidance for programs such as Bt brinjal from its beginning or whenever opportunity was given. They waited long enough to make these comments. I disagree with comment that options such as referendum....this is not political decision...it is science based. I want to remind here Pandit Nehru's comments: Everything can wait but not Agriculture.

    on Feb 20, 2010
  • RRM

    One should really appreciate the "brain wave" that Dr. Swaminathan has even at the age of 85. Really commendable! <br /> He is also in agreement that US has really stringent mechanisms and norms for evaluating the safety of GM crops and we all know that US has GM crops for the last 14 years. So if three independent mechanisms in US have proven that BT gene is safe, then why the irony for BT brinjal. It also has the same cry1Ac gene which has been used in Bt cotton and other crops in the US and other agriculture countries.<br /> Citing an example of Switzerland, which is not an agriculture based country first of all and then has limited people to feed. <br /> I feel one should take a balanced stand and let the people of this country decide, instead of the minister or some biased scientists taking a call for the food security of today's 1.12 billion and the increasing magic number.

    on Feb 20, 2010
  • bpank

    I'm really surprised to see comments from Dr Swaminathan and his opposition for release of Bt brinjal. I seriously doubt his motive.<br /> In one of his article"GM:Food for thought" published in The Asian Age, New Delhi on 26th August 2009 he is clearly supporting Bt as a very safe technology though he is clearly missed out the way Bt protein works ( he said it is active only in acidic condition and not in alkaline condition which is prevalent in mammals and humans: which is exactly other way, so doubt can be raised on whether he really studied the technology) also there he slams environmental activists, NGOs etc saying that all the concerns raised by these people are baseless and there is no scientific proof to prove these concerns as this technology is proven safe from last 10 years of its release.<br /> <br /> And today he is opposing this technology or going safe on it so how do you take it ?? is it a age effect on Dr. Swaminathan?

    on Feb 20, 2010
  • Vel

    This is Dr. David Schubert's words, a PhD holder in immunology and a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. The Salk Institute is considered one of the best medical research institutes in the world. <br /> <br /> I am writing this text because of my concern about the introduction of brinjal genetically modified with bacterial Bt toxin into the food supply of India. There are several reasons that the introduction of this genetically engineered (GE) food plant should not be allowed. They include:<br /> <br /> 1) The lack of need. Brinjal is not a crop threatened by an overwhelming insect infestation.<br /> <br /> 2) Environmental risk. Brinjal is native to India and the GE genes will unquestionably contaminate the native population.<br /> <br /> 3) Higher costs. The purchase of seeds on an annual basis as opposed to saving seed from year to year will increase costs at all levels of the food chain.<br /> <br /> 4) Social and political dependence. Once a foreign company controls the seed market of any single food plant, seed for more GE plants will follow, and the company will have tremendous power over both the farmers, which constitute a major segment of the Indian population, as well as the political process. This has clearly happened in the United States (US), where Monsanto is a major financial supporter of both political parties, and therefore has political appointees who dictate both national and international agricultural policy.<br /> <br /> 5) Finally, GE brinjal expressing Bt protein poses a serious health risk to those who consume it. This is the issue that I wish to address. First, however, I would like to debunk some myths that are used by the proponents of GE brinjal to claim that it is safe.

    on Feb 22, 2010
  • Raj

    Dear Vel, I know Dr Schubert is a professor of Immunology and I also hope he has enough knowledge of Indian Agriculture, but for his and your referenced, following are the clarifications to what you have quoted as Dr David Schubert's comments 1) If you are from India and know the way brinjal crop is cultivated, you will stop eating brinjal. On an average 25-80 sprays are done on the crop which is of atmost 150-180 days. These sprays are done mainly for the Fruit and shoot borer, which causes damage to the extent of 60-70%. 2) No one till date has ever proven that Brinjal is a native of India. All the botanists have mentioned that the Centre of Origin for brinjal unknown. It has only been claimed that India is the Centre of Diversity for brinjal. If not you can go through numerous references in the Expert Committee-II report. 3) Mahyco has donated the Bt gene to three public Institutes in India and one each Insititute in the Bangladesh and Phillipines. They all have developed "varieties" with bt gene in it for the resource poor farmers. These varieties can be saved and the farmer can reuse the seed every year. 4) I think bt brinjal has been developed by Mahyco and its an Indian company, so no concern about the issues raised. 5) EPA, FDA, EFSA and SFANZ all have said that cry1Ac gene is safe for use and has been in use for more than 60 years. I hope all the above clarifications will help you analyze the view of Dr Schubert. Thanks, keep writing......

    on Feb 22, 2010