India Halts Release of Genetically Modified Food Crop; Send Comments to Stop GE Alfalfa in the U.S. by February 16, 2010
(Beyond Pesticides, February 12, 2010) The Washington Post is reporting that after much protest from environmentalists, farmers, doctors, and state officials, India has imposed a moratorium on a genetically engineered (GE) variety of brinjal or eggplant. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) brinjal has been engineered to produce its own insecticide. It would have been India’s first GE food crop, and the world’s first GE eggplant approved for wide scale production. Bt cotton is currently India’s only genetically modified crop. Bt corn is grown in 17 countries including the United States, and China recently approved a strain of Bt rice for human consumption.
A government committee approved the commercial release of Bt brinjal in October. The committee’s decision was met with protests across the country. The states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Karnataka had already stated their intention to ban the crop if the federal government approves it. When Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh hosted seven public meetings around the country to debate Bt Brijal, some meetings devolved into heated shouting matches. Many protesters dressed as bright purple or green eggplants.
Mr. Ramesh has since called for more independent research to ensure the crop is safe for human consumption, saying the moratorium will continue until, “independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product.”
Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. (Mahyco) developed Bt brinjal, using technology developed by Monsanto. Monsanto owns 26 percent of Mahyco, and the two companies are currently working together to market Bt cotton in India. Mahyco General Manager M.K. Sharma said in a statement, “Mahyco is confident that sound science based on evidence obtained over nine years of rigorous testing will prevail and the country’s farmers, consumers and farm labor and the environment will benefit from agriculture biotechnology.”
Advocates of genetically engineered crops have argued that they are the only way to meet the world’s growing demand for food, and that they reduce the need for pesticides, while increasing yields. Studies have shown these claims to be false. The widespread adoption of GE crops in the United States has actually increased pesticide use but failed to increase yield. Recent studies have also linked GMO consumption to organ failure.
Bacillus thuringiensis is a naturally occuring soil bacterium that produces a toxin lethal to larval stage of several insect pests. Bt toxin is a least toxic and effective pesticide that is used by organic farmers in the United states. Organic farmers are concerned that Bt crops genetically engineered to produce this toxin may lead to insect resistance and make the organic pesticide ineffective. Activist Vandana Shiva founder of Navdanya, a network of organic farmers and seed banks in 16 states in India, said, “The bacterium is safe in the soil, but when you put the Bt gene in the plant it is not.” She added that the only way to meet the world’s growing food demand is through “biodiverse systems that are organic.”
In the United States, public health, environmental and organic agriculture advocates are urging the public to submit comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on its draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa by the February 16, 2010 deadline, demanding that USDA protect organic food from GE contamination and not approve Monsanto’s GE alfalfa. USDA claims in the EIS that there is no evidence that consumers care about GE contamination of organic alfalfa. But, it is not just alfalfa that is at risk. Since alfalfa is fed to dairy cows and other livestock, organic dairy and meat products could also be affected.
How to comment: Comments are due February 16, 2010. Comments can be written and submitted online at http://ga3.org/campaign/alfalfaEIS. For mailed comments, send two copies to: Docket No. APHIS-2007-0044, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8, 4700 River Road Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238. Please state that your comment refers to Docket No. APHIS-2007-0044.
Alfalfa is our nation’s fourth largest crop. Grown on 23 million acres, and used primarily for forage, it is the first perennial crop to be genetically modified. It is estimated that before the ban over 260,000 acres of GE alfalfa had been planted in the U.S. by 5,500 growers. GE alfalfa presents a unique risk to organic growers: unlike wind pollinated crops such as corn, alfalfa is pollinated by bees. This results in higher risk of cross pollination between GE alfalfa and unmodified varieties. Growers of GE corn are required to plant a buffer of unmodified corn around their fields to keep pollen carrying engineered genes from contaminating other growers’ fields or wild plants. These regulations have reduced, but not eliminated, the incidence of cross fertilization in corn. In alfalfa fields, these regulations would be even less successful, since bees can carry pollen up to five miles from their hive.