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. For example, when potatoes are exposed to light, a chemical called solanin is produced which appears as a green tinge. Green potatoes can be toxic, damage an unborn foetus and cause abortions. Other plants of this family known for their toxic qualities are belladonna, datura and tobacco.
Farmers have been working for thousands of years to domesticate wild plants like those of the Solanaceae family, to make them safe for eating. Much of this exercise involved breeding out the toxins contained in the wild plants. Scientists too have used careful, selective breeding to "clean up" crop varieties which had good qualities but contained toxins. 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!
Genetic engineering in plants has not been mastered enough to rule out the creation of dangerous new products in the cells when genes are muddled during the insertion of new, usually foreign genes. Several cases are known when new proteins and toxins were produced in plants which were genetically engineered. For example, when genetically modified (GM) peas were being developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia to protect peas from the pest pea weevil, it was found that newly-formed proteins in the GM peas repeatedly caused immunity problems and lung inflammation when fed to mice. The experiments had to be abandoned. In another case, when mice were fed the genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato, seven out of 40 experimental animals died within 14 days and the others suffered stomach lesions.
Genetic engineering in plants of the Solanaceae family 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 the cell metabolism (by genetic engineering) of species that are naturally genetically hardwired to produce toxins, is likely to call up old plant toxins in these species.
Testing for food safety is key in genetically engineered 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.
The Mahyco seed company has also tested its Bt brinjal in the same way. However, substantial equivalence is a highly contested paradigm, favoured 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 the cell.
Apart from the critical safety issues, there are other questions that arise with the impending release of India's first genetically engineered food crop. There is no system in place for labelling these foods. Indeed, how can one in the Indian situation label a vegetable that will be sold from farmers' fields, laden into trucks and taken to wholesale mandis? How will the vegetables on the vendor's cart or the corner shop be labelled as GM? The Government of India recognises the need to label GE food, and its position in the meetings of the Codex Alimentarius has been consistently in favour of mandatory labelling.
Accordingly, the ministry of health has drafted rules under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to include labelling of GE food and food ingredients. But there is as yet no mechanism in place to label GE food, nor have any awareness programmes been conducted to explain the nature of GE foods and the need for labelling them. For most consumers, especially rural consumers, GE foods are a black box and unless they are made aware of the nature of GE foods, labelling would be meaningless. Despite these big gaps in preparedness, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has approved Mahyco's Bt brinjal for commercial production.
Does this mean that the consumer's right to informed choice about their food is about to be trashed? This right is enshrined in India's Consumer Protection Act and the GEAC approval will violate the provisions of this act. Further, labelling is not just about pasting a coloured sticker on a brinjal, it involves a rigorous process of segregation and identity preservation (IP) to keep Bt and non-Bt food segregated. IP is a complex and expensive process requiring separation of a GM food from non-GM food, starting from farmers' fields, all the way to vegetable shops. Without going through this process, labelling cannot be done. Or has the GEAC planned that all brinjals cultivated in this country henceforth will be genetically engineered?
And what about fixing liability for damage? There is no liability law in India. In the event of contamination of organic brinjal with Bt brinjal, what will be the process of recall? Who will be liable to the producers of organic brinjal? There are no provisions for monitoring the long-term impact of GE foods on the health of consumers. In case adverse health impacts are reported from eating Bt brinjal, who would be liable to pay compensation? How would the liability be fixed and what would be the quantum? In the absence of any kind of preparedness or safeguards, what would be the liability of the government for approving such food crops? And in the event of damage caused by Bt brinjal, will Mahyco be put in the dock?