Ask any farmer and you will hear how difficult it is to grow food crops. This is particularly true when one looks at agriculture in the developing world. Large variations in rainfall, waves of pests and huge subsidies for North American and European agriculture make farming in the developing world very challenging. Now there is a new obstacle, the obstruction from environmental non-governmental organisations (eNGOs) that are using falsehoods, scare stories and pseudo-science to pressure governments to block proven agricultural technology. The story of Bt brinjal in India is an excellent example of negative impact caused by these eNGOs.

Brinjal is a staple food for millions of people in the developing world. Unfortunately, insect pests also like brinjal. Indian farmers often lose over half of their brinjal crop to insect pests. Until recently, pesticide spraying was the only option farmers had to protect their crop. It is common for brinjal to be sprayed more than 50 times in a growing season. Agricultural scientists have developed an alternative to the massive spraying of pesticides. It is called Bt brinjal.

Bt stands for a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. These bacteria produce proteins that target insect pests. When the insect ingests the Bt bacteria or just the Bt protein itself, it dies. Bt bacteria have been used as organic pesticides for over 100 years in China and over 40 years in the organic food industry. They are safe and effective. Modern agricultural scientists have transferred the Bt proteins into a variety of crops to produce insect-resistant crops. These crops are a type of GM crop and as such have suffered from huge anti-GM campaigns driven by eNGOs.

The science of GM crops is years old and thousands of experiments have been conducted to test the products. With respect to Bt crops, the UN-OECD 2007 report Consensus Document on Safety Information on Transgenic Plants Expressing Bacillus thuringiensis-Derived Insect Control Protein states: “Both the long history of safe use of B.thuringiensis and the acute oral toxicity data allow for a conclusion that these and other d-endotoxins pose negligible toxicity risk to humans.”

When considering GM crops in general, the 2010 EU report A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001-2010) stated: “According to the projects’ results, there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

A decade of Bt brinjal research has demonstrated yield increases of 70%. Further, the huge reduction in pesticide spraying coupled with the increased yields would benefit the Indian farmer by R70,000 per hectare. During the process to gain commercial approval of Bt brinjal, the Indian Genetic Engineering Approval Committee stated: [Bt brinjal] “is effective in controlling target pests, safe to the environment, non toxic as determined by toxicity and animal feeding trials, non allergenic and has the potential to benefit the farmers.”

Although science is clearly on the side of commercialisation of Bt brinjal, the politics of GM crops in India is anything but clear. When the then environment & forests minister Jairam Ramesh declared a moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal, he said he had to be “responsible to science”. He then went on to claim that Greenpeace-sponsored researcher Dr Seralini had demonstrated harm from Bt crops and this helped him decide on a moratorium.

Greenpeace is one of the world’s largest eNGOs. They have been clear that no amount of scientific research will convince them that GM crops are safe. Is it any wonder that Greenpeace-sponsored ‘research’ found fault with Bt crops? But, if one looks at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) review of the Seralini ‘research’, a very different conclusion is reached. EFSA said the Seralini ‘research’ did not present any new information or reason to change the safe evaluation of three different Bt maize crops. The EFSA statement agrees with every other scientific body that has evaluated Bt crops. Seralini’s claims have repeatedly been rejected by world food safety authorities. Conversely, globally accepted research is unanimous in its support for the commercial release of Bt brinjal. What did minister Ramesh mean when he said he was “responsible to science”?

A decade ago, the Indian government held back on the commercial release of Bt cotton, even though science clearly supported its release. The result was widespread illegal planting of Bt cotton by farmers who had realised the benefits of the technology. Soon, problems of counterfeit Bt seeds started causing huge crop losses to farmers who thought they were planting genuine Bt cotton. If the current moratorium of Bt brinjal in India is not reversed, the same problems seen with the delayed release of Bt cotton will return to haunt the Indian farmers who already want to plant Bt brinjal.

Greenpeace advocates the use of Bt bacteria in organic agriculture but then claims Bt proteins, from the same bacteria, are dangerous when they are found in GM crops!

Late Norman Borlaug has been credited with developing crops that saved a billion people in the developing world. Greenpeace has a very active anti-GM campaign in the developing world. When asked about Greenpeace, Dr Borlaug had said: “These are utopian people that live on Cloud 9 and come into the third world and cause all kinds of confusion and negative impacts on the developing countries.”

Reduced pesticide sprays, increased yields and healthier food are all well documented outcomes from Bt crop technology yet minister Ramesh had said the Greenpeace-sponsored anti-GM campaign justifies the moratorium on commercial release of Bt brinjal. It is very difficult to understand how this is being “responsible to science”.

The author is a faculty member at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia, Canada

Originally published in: The Financial Express-India, July 14 2011