Yes, there is evidence that Bt brinjal is 100 percent safe (Part I)
I’d like to thank Kavitha Kuruganti for her response to my recent article on Bt brinjal. It is good to have a public debate on such policy matters. She argues that there is no scientific evidence on the side of “illegal” Bt brinjal.
At a fundamental level, both Kavitha and I are looking at this issue from exactly the same lens: of consumer safety. I want my food to be safe and I want to feed only safe food to my children. The fact that growing GM crops may improve farmers’ incomes is irrelevant if safety is compromised. This question should be easily resolved by looking at the safety evidence. So how could I have reached a diametrically opposite conclusion to Kavitha’s? Did we look at different things or did we not assess the facts properly?
Let me start by saying that Kavitha’s scepticism is highly admirable. I love it when people ask questions and refuse to consider any alleged “consensus”. That’s the necessary first step of critical thinking. But she now needs to step back and look at the Big Picture. That’s when the pattern of evidence will become clearer.
I will address Kavitha’s concerns in two posts, given space constraints. Let me start with the broadest level of evidence: if GM is unsafe, it must leave a trace somewhere.
I’ve reconfirmed that trillions of animal meals and billions (close to trillions) of human meals containing GM crops have been consumed since 1995 with not a single reported instance of adverse effects. Take just one case – in India around 11 lakh tonnes of cottonseed oil is consumed domestically, almost all of it made from Bt cotton, which has the Bt protein. And a vast amount of GM canola oil is imported from places like Canada each year. No complaint has been received from any consumer, if we exclude the reported flatulence from eating the pakoras being mass-produced under Mr Modi’s youth employment programme.
Further, around 17 per cent of Bangladeshi brinjal crop area is expected to have adopted Bt brinjal by now, and since it has double the productivity of ordinary brinjal, up to 35 per cent of brinjal consumed in Bangladesh today could potentially be genetically modified. If this was poisonous, then millions of our Bengali neighbours would be dying like flies. But they are still out there, striking terror in the hearts of South African cricket players.
Kavitha has questioned the interpretation that no one has fallen ill from GM foods. She asks, how do I “know that the ones who are indeed falling ill, more so to particular diseases in countries like the USA, are not doing so because of the consumption of GM foods?”
Good question. And here’s why Kavitha need not worry. We know that life expectancy has been increasing dramatically all over the world including in the USA over the past 40 years. Yes, it is theoretically possible that millions of Americans have died from GM poisoning even as millions of others have been saved from other diseases by advances in medicine. But that suggests that those saved by medicine were not consuming “sufficient” GM foods else they could not possibly have been saved. So why did they not consume “enough” GM foods? This Alice-in-Wonderland breakdown of logic can only go so far. The fact is that there is no tell-tale pattern of deaths among GM food eaters in the USA. Where there is no smoke there is no fire. So Kavitha should relax.
Instead of harms, studies have shown that animal health has improved from GM foods, such as the 2014 review in the Journal of Animal Science. I invite Kavitha to provide me with even one scientifically validated case in which any human illness has been linked to eating GM food. There is none.
Second, there is rock solid science behind all this. T. M. Manjunath and K. S. Mohan note that over two thousand studies dealing with the safety of GMOs have confirmed their safety. Further, all of the world’s major scientific and regulatory bodies have confirmed that the food and feed derived from GM crops is safe – on par with conventionally produced food. These bodies are too many to name, but include the six major science academies in India, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences (USA), Food Standards Australia & New Zealand, the Royal Society of Medicine (UK), the European Commission and the World Health Organisation.
The Environmental Protection Agency of the USA, which has tested the Bt protein repeatedly for over 20 years, has this to say: “The EPA believes that protein instability in digestive fluids and the lack of adverse effects using the maximum-hazard dose approach eliminate, in general, the need for longer-term testing of Bt protein plant incorporated protectants”.
Basically, the science is very simple: since our gut has no specific receptor for Bt protein, it is broken down by the stomach into component dipeptides and amino acids for absorption in the blood stream to be used as building blocks by the body. Further, since brinjal is consumed after cooking, even further degradation of the protein takes place prior to digestion. I would question studies which do not use cooked Bt protein.
Popular scientific magazines like the Scientific American have long confirmed the safety of GM foods. But when even a left-leaning paper like New York Times starts publishing in favour of GM food, we know the science is pretty much settled.
What about the “hundreds of studies” that Kavitha has linked to, about the adverse effects of Bt protein? In actual fact, only nine studies on “Bt toxin” were cited in Kavitha’s chapter on “health impacts”. I looked at the first of these, by Mezzomo et al. (2013). It turns out thatthe study did not test the actual Bt toxins expressed by biotech crops. It used whole bacteria, exactly those used in pest sprays by organic farmers but in concentrations humongously greater. Is it Kavitha’s contention that organic Bt sprays should now also be banned in India – for that’s the only thing that the study actually looked at. The mice were clearly not fed delicious baingan bhartha.