A bean full of problems

A bean full of problems the government of India plans to issue a notification permitting the import of one million tonnes of soybean. The proposal has been cleared by the commerce industry and clearance is awaited from the agricultural ministry. The ministry of environment and forests ( mef ), which is responsible for the biosafety concerns in the deal, has been bypassed. The ministry of health has also been ignored. No efforts have been made to ascertain if the import includes bioengineered soybean.

While genetically modified products have tremendous potential to meet the challenge of feeding the teeming world population, there is a flip side, reports of which have only started coming in. Herbicide resistant crops are designed in such a manner that the herbicides only kill associated weeds, while the crop remains unaffected. Now, there is increasing scientific evidence that genes for herbicide resistance can cross over to the targeted weeds, defeating the very purpose of developing the bioengineered varieties as the weeds also develop resistance to the herbicides designed to get rid of them.

Among the well-known risks associated with genetically engineered foodcrops are the increasing incidence of antibiotic resistance, production of toxic proteins and human allergies. For example, a tomato with genes from peanuts might cause allergic reactions due to peanut proteins. People with peanut allergies are normally very careful about avoiding any peanut products, but if they eat an unlabelled genetically engineered tomato, they may suffer dangerous allergic reactions that can be fatal in extreme cases. The us seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, was forced to drop development of genetically engineered soybeans that contained Brazil nut genes after it was discovered that extracts of genetically engineered soybean reacted with blood serum from people with Brazil nut allergies.

Cropping up Soybean is rich in protein content. Though its oil is not popular in India, the soya meal that is left behind after the oil is extracted has commercial potential. Soya products are strongly recommended for a protein rich diet in the form of soya milk, soya flour and in confectioneries. The de-oiled cake is used for cattle feed, poultry feed and aquaculture.

Soybean-Roundup Ready is a genetically engineered variety developed by Monsanto, the transnational bioengineering company. The gene introduced into the bean makes the seeds resistant to Roundup, a herbicide produced by the company. Application of this herbicide thus kills the weeds, sparing the oilseed crop. This makes weed control easier. It also ensures that Monsanto's herbicide is used and sold wherever the engineered crop is sown.

Soybean has been at the centre of controversy for more than a year now. While there are demands in Europe that the genetically modified or transgenic beans be segregated from the normal, the producers in the us are refusing to do so as this will cut into their profits. About 15 per cent of soybean crop from the us is transgenic or genetically modified. Labelling of products that may contain transgenic soybean is also a contentious issue. usa , the only country in the world currently producing these seeds, feels that this amounts to sanctions against free trade.

Playing in industry's hands The promotion of soybean as a cash crop saw the emergence of a number of oil extraction units in India. Due to a shortage of soybean, a number of these are lying idle. The oilseed is being imported to help ease the domestic edible oil prices and improve the capacity utilisation. Interestingly, the global soybean output for the current year is an all-time high and is estimated to be in excess of 150 million tonnes.

However, the biotechnological concerns are not being addressed. The mef has not even heard of the soybean import proposal. "I am not aware that India is considering an import of soybean,' says Vinod Vaish, additional secretary at the ministry. As an afterthought, he adds, "So what if India wants to import soybean? Why is this ministry's clearance required?' It is important to note that Vaish is in-charge of biosafety issues and commercial release of genetically engineered organisms.

S M Acharya, joint secretary at the ministry of commerce, who has cleared the deal says notification will be issued after recommendations are made by the ministry of agriculture regarding quarantine to avoid the arrival of pests and weeds along with the imports. "We expect the deal to be cleared any time now,' says Seema Dikshit, technical director of soya food marketing at the American Soybean Association ( asa ), New Delhi.

When questioned about the possibility of genetically modified soybean being imported, Dikshit refused to comment. "We are currently not in a position to say whether the import will contain genetically modified soybean or not. Anyway, the beans are for processing, not for planting,' she stresses.

The technical director of the asa is blissfully unaware of transgenic soybean, the genes that have been introduced, and for what purposes. "I do not see the problem in importing transgenics because the oilseed has been engineered to improve nutrition' says Dikshit.

The government aims at conditional customs clearance by splitting up the cargo between the various ports to ensure that the consignment is not picked up by traders and sold to the farmers. This is to ensure that the beans are used for processing alone and not for sowing. According to newspaper reports, J A Choudhary, secretary, department of sugar and edible oils of the ministry of food, is confident that this is a foolproof mechanism. However, the industry is not so sure. Not many oil extraction units exist near ports. So it is not practical to split the seeds up, they say.

The mef has an elaborate system for genetically engineered material. Clearance is required for research as well as commercial purposes. Clearance is also required for import. The Review Committee on Genetic Manipulations of the mef is responsible for issuing permits and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, again of the mef , is responsible for monitoring of large-scale commercial use of transgenic materials. In the present case, it has not even been informed.

Cause for alarm
The environmental pressure group Greenpeace India has appealed to the government to exercise caution. The Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, New Delhi, has appealed to the Prime Minister to stop the import.

The concern is well founded. Many countries are exercising caution over the use of genetically modified foods owing to the inadequacy of safety data and indications of ill-effects. But the us is pressurising governments to allow the import of soybean containing transgenic seeds as its producers refuse to segregate such seeds from nontransgenic seeds. Some countries, such as Brazil, have succumbed, and are importing transgenic soybean.

When environment clearance is not even asked for, the question of the consumer exercising the right to choose does not arise as the consumer is not informed.