Transgene Flow from Bt Brinjal: a real Risk?

Bt brinjal too can create super weeds. 

Gene flow from a transgenic plants has remained a contentious issue. In the absence of experimental data, the task to pinpoint exactly as to how much is the potential risk, especially in centres of diversity, becomes daunting. The GM industry has often used lack of experimental data to show there is no cause for concern. It has happened in India, in the case of Bt cotton, and more recently when the moratorium on Bt brinjal came in 2010.

John Samuels of the Novel Solanaceae Crops Project, Penzance, Cornwall, UK, has raised some valid concerns, based on available data, in an excellent paper published in Trends in Biotechnology (Vol 31, Issue 6, June 2013). Admitting that transgene flow from Bt brinjal to wild, weedy and cultivated relatives is a major biosafety concern, he writes in an article Transgene Flow from Bt Brinjal: a real Risk?(URL: “in preliminary risk assessment tests in India in 2007, only four spiny species were tested for interfertility with S.melongena  ( They found only Solanum incanumL. (the nearest wild relative of brinjal) to be crossable; however, the production of hybrid progeny was not investigated.” With such limited scientific studies available, obviously gene flow was considered to be not much of a problem.

Citing various reasons like inadequate experimental methodologies and erroneous nomenclature of the parent species, John Samuel tells us that the biosafety implications of hybridisation remained compromised. Looking through the research data now available, he says that six wild relative species and four cultivated species have the potential to crossbred with the transgenic Bt brinjal. I have taken this table out from the article for an easy understanding.

Table 1 Solanum species of India known to cross with brinjal
Species Common name Status
S. aethiopicum L. Scarlet eggplant Cultivated
S. cumingii Dunal Wild brinjal Wild
S. incanum L. Bitter tomato Wild
S. insanum L. Weedy brinjal Wild
S. macrocarpon L. Gboma eggplant Cultivated
S. marginatum L.f. White-margined nightshade Wild/introduced
S. ovigerum Dunal Brinjal landraces Cultivated
S. torvum Sw. Pea eggplant Sometimes cultivated/introduced
S. violaceum Ortega Indian nightshade Wild
S. virginianum L. Bitter brinjal Wild


His conclusion: “Furthermore, the risk assessment of pollen-mediated transgene flow from Bt brinjal, if cultivated in Bangladesh or the Philippines, should not rely on the inadequate, previously undertaken ERA (Environmental Risk Assessment) tests.” Hope the scientists as well as the science administrators are listening. Especially in the light of latest revelations that show how super weeds are becoming a nuisance in United States and Canada.


Coalition for GM Free India demands withdrawal of Supreme Court affidavit of Ministry of Agriculture that gives clean chit to GM regulators.

Reacting to the Prof.Sopory Committee Report1 that investigated the Bt Bikaneri Narma case, the Coalition for a GM-Free India said that, “We congratulate the Committee for its thorough investigation which exposes one of theworst cases of scientific fraud within the Indian Council for Agriculture (ICAR) institutions. The indictment of the agricultural research establishment and the transgenic regulatory system is a shame to the country and onceagain points out to the wastage of taxpayers’ funds. We demand stringent action against all people involved in the affair, including senior ICAR people and retired officials, some of who have even been shielded from thisenquiry.

It expressed dismay that the ICAR seems to be protecting its errant officials; apparently the establishment waited for the retirement of a senior official before making the report public. It also observed that another seniortechnocrat, Dr Bansal, was repeatedly protected by the establishment even though he was the Coordinator of this project; he does not figure either in the enquiry or the report. The long delayed report dated August 2012 wasmade public yesterday, which means it has been with the Ministry of Agriculture for the last 4 months.

PSC and TEC concerns proved right: The Coalition spokesperson added , “The report underscores and provides evidence that support the serious concerns raised both by the Parliamentary Standing Committee(PSC) reportas well as the interim report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of the Supreme Court, during the last few weeks , about the inability, incapability and unpreparedness of the Indian GM research establishment to deal withthis risky and irreversible technology and the gross inadequacy and incompetence of the Indian GM regulatory apparatus to regulate this technology and ensure biosafety.

Failure of GM crop regulation: A notable failure in the whole incident is that the BNBt contamination had happened prior to commercialisation but went undetected by the regulatory system! The committee also pointed to theconflict of interest in the developers of BNBt sitting in GEAC as regulators and approving their own product. This same regulatory mechanism with its inadequacies had cleared the Bt brinjal dossier. There was virtually nooversight, the raw data had not been even read by the GEAC, there was complete ignorance of the data and the event – again which has happened with BNBt. Clearly the GM regulatory mechanism in the country is eitherincapable of, or deliberately unwilling to deal with the intricacies of biosafety testing in a rigorous manner and function transparently with the highest standards of governance. How can the country afford to do open air releasesof such a risky, irreversible technology when scientists and regulators dealing with it have shown lack of competence and care compounded by absences of ethics and internal checks and balances?”asked the Coalitionspokesperson.

MOA commits perjury: “It is a travesty of honest governance and ethics that the Ministry of Agriculture filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India (in the GMOs PIL), arguing that open air field trials were absolutely essentialand the regulatory system is robust and world class, even as it had this damning report, datelined August 2012 lying with it. This amounts to perjury as the affidavit filed in 8th November, 2012 claims that, “no part of the affidavitis false and nothing material has been concealed”.” It said that the Ministry of Agriculture has completely lost its credibility, and India’s farmer livelihoods, consumers’ food safety and the country’s biodiversity is in grave dangerdue the unjustified promotion of GM crops at the behest of private corporate interests and some public sector agricultural scientists.

Contamination is inevitable and Supreme Court orders violated: The fact that the whole incident emerged from contamination of BNBt by the Monsanto gene, is incontrovertible evidence that contamination is inevitable andunavoidable. The Supreme Court had in its orders of 2007 clearly directed the GEAC to have zero tolerance for contamination in/through trials. This case has demonstrated that contamination did happen at that time and that nocontamination testing ever happens and/or the regulator has no means to even check or detect contamination post the event. In this case contamination finally came to light only when Mahyco complained about the illegal use ofMonsanto’s gene.

The Coalition feels that given the high stakes in terms of profits and control of India’s huge seed market by private corporations, the entire episode of BNBt seeds raises serious questions on how and why this blatant and easilydiscernible contamination occurred. At least, this being a public sector seed, the release of data from the agricultural establishment could be ensured and the failure was subjected to thorough investigation.

The Coalition is extremely concerned at the manner in which the international patent protection laws are used by multinational seed companies to prevent access to their seeds for independent research and testing and thereliance on their testing to provide clearance to GM crops without rigorous independent testing facilities being available in India.

We demand that the Ministry of Environment & Forests immediately take cognisance of this, in addition to the reports from the PSC and TEC and immediately stop all field trials and put all applications forcommercialisation of GM crops under abeyance until all these issues are dealt with.

We demand that the affidavit submitted by the MoA to the Supreme Court be withdrawn. We are deeply concerned that the Agriculture Minister has written letters to Chief Ministers to permit open air field trials despite therepeated failures of the GM research and regulatory mechanisms. We demand that MoA support the many safe methodologies that are available instead of going all out to support a technology whose need and safety have beenshown by independent scientists across the world to be highly debatable if not downright risky.

For more details contact: Kavitha Kuruganti, Ph : 09393001550

Sridhar Radhakrishnan, Ph : 09995358205


Background: The Bt cotton in question is the Bikaneri Narma (BN) Bt (variety) and the Bt NHH-44 (Bt hybrid) touted as the “first indigenous public sector-bred GM crop in India” developed by the Central Institute for CottonResearch, Nagpur (CICR) and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UAS) along with Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). It was approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apexregulator in 2008. The developers had claimed that the event engineered into BNBt and Bt NHH 44 is a distinct event called BNLA106. After a year of commercialisation and without any explanation BNBt and Bt NHH44 werewithdrawn from the market. It was found to have the event (MON531) originally patented by Monsanto, this came to light after Mahyco complained about it. The Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) was compelled toinstitute an enquiry to examine the matter, when it came to light that BNBt was contaminated by a gene patented by Monsanto- whether deliberately or otherwise.

The highlights of the report: The Prof.Sopory committee has strongly and unequivocally indicted the agriculture research establishment for failing on scientific, technical, institutional and ethical fronts and has stated that, “Allbiosafety studies and field trials conducted with BNBt and Bt NHH 44 are invalid” This report clearly states that contamination has happened, maybe through “out-crossing or admixtures” and states that the possibility of it beingaccidental is remote. It has also cast doubts on other GM research taking place in the establishment using this or similar constructs.

Technical issues: The committee pointed out that the fundamental flaw on the technical front was that the whole BNBt project rested on a single event and there were no other events to carry out an event selection process. Itpointed out that, “Event specific primers were not developed for BNBt” and more worryingly rearrangement of DNA was found –which raises critical questions on stability – particularly problematic in a commercialised event.Questions were raised about the characterisation of the so-called purified BNBt.

Research issues: On the research front the committee has laid bare the lack of processes and absence of due diligence within the ICAR establishment in how project proposals are written and tasks delegated and finally theproject executed. The report has pointed out how the ICAR lacks capabilities on many fronts but pretends to have them; for example in this case a scientist who admitted to not having a certain capability was allocated thatcritical task, thereby jeopardising the safety of the product. The committee also pointed out that the project was “poorly planned” and lacked supervision from the project head and the institution heads despite this beingconsidered “a project of national importance”.

Institutional and other issues: Equally egregious were the failings on the institutional and ethical fronts. ICAR blatantly disregarded the Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) signed by its scientists and claimed somebody else’smaterials. In addition it compelled its own scientists to remove the name of the original developer of the construct disregarding the MTA. The committee suggested that, “ICAR should think about not taking policy decisions ofthis nature that would compromise the ability of its scientists to take ethically correct decisions.” While the motives for such action remain murky, there cannot be a clearer indictment of the lack of ethics in the functioning of theICAR system.

Regulatory issues: On the GM crop regulatory front instances of regulatory failure are piling up. The report has pointed out the clear conflicts of interest. Developers were sitting in the GEAC meeting as regulators and approvedtheir own product! The committee expressly recommended that conflict of interest of this kind should be weeded out from the system. Molecular characterisation is a crucial and primary component of the biosafety testingregime – the scientists here got away undetected with the Monsanto event in their product!

1 Full report at this link

India denies GMO contamination in basmati

Author(s): Jyotika Sood

Date: May 30, 2012
EU had sought clarification after finding genetically modified organisms in the exported rice

riceBasmati rice is famous for pleasant aroma, superfine texture and extreme elongation (Credit:cookbookman17)India has denied allegations levied by the European Commission on genetically modified organisms (GMO) contamination in basmati rice exported from India.
The Directorate-General Health and Consumers (DGHC) of the European Commission had issued a notification to the Union ministry of commerce and industry on May 2 seeking a reply on an unknown and unauthorised GMO being found in the rice exported from India. The notification was issued following a complaint by a French manufacturer Soufflet Alimentaire to European Union’s Rapid Alert System of Food and Feed (RASFF) on January 5. The company packs basmati rice for retail sale. As part of its monitoring plan, the company detected presence of genetically modified rice in a batch which consisted of basmati rice from four different suppliers–three Pakistani and one Indian.

According to sources in the ministry,the government in its reply to director general of DGHC has  informed that no GM food crops are being grown in India and so there is no question of contamination.

In the notification, Paolo Testori Coggi, director general of DGHC asked the Indian government about its official policy on cultivation of GMOs for food and feed use; list of GMOs currently authorised for cultivation in India and official controls in place; field trials of GMOs been undertaken either in the past or present; controls in place concerning the export of rice to the EU for the presence of GMOs; geographical indication of the primary basmati growing regions and source of seed for cultivation of basmati rice in India and tests done in regard to GM presence. She added that the marketing of the product by the French company has been suspended pending further investigations.

The issue of GMO contamination of basmati rice was raised at the preparatory meeting for the Convention on Biological Diversity, convened by Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on May 29. At the meeting Aruna Rodrigues, lead petitioner in a public interest litigation seeking moratorium on GM testing in the country, questioned the silence of the commerce ministry on the issue. She complained that the way field trials are being regulated and monitored in India, contamination by genetically modified organisms could not be denied.

Is it for the first time?

In April this year, Richard Werren, the managing director of UK-based safety certification firm Cert ID Europe, had cautioned doubling of border alerts involving imported rice compared to last year. In an interview to a UK  media he had stated that “the unauthorised GMOs have been turning up in consignment of basmati rice from India and Pakistan.”


The recent figures from the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed reported 26 border rejections in 2012, which are up from 11 in 2010 with most involved rice products, according to Cert ID. The results were reached by putting basmati rice to polymerase chain reaction testing that proved the products contained GMOs unauthorized by the EU.

He reportedly also said that “the source of the contamination may be that the more expensive basmati rice is being adulterated with cheap genetically modified rice.”

Basmati market

Basmati rice is a variety of rice which fetches good export price in the international market because of its three features–pleasant aroma, superfine texture and extreme elongation. The aromatic variety of rice is grown majorly in India and Pakistan where India accounts for around 60 per cent of global export market share. About two-third of basmati rice produced in India is exported to various countries like US, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Kuwait, UAE and Europe.

Basmati traders estimate, India’s annual production in 2011 was around 4.5 million tonnes and it fetched around US $1,100 per tonne in global market. Recently India has been looking to China, Mexico and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as new markets for its basmati exports. China has already allowed Indian basmati rice to be imported.

The traders say that India basmati rice is already under scrutiny for high pesticide content. Now the allegations of GMO are going to hamper the trade at a time when the country is eyeing more export market.