India Decides to Go Slow on the Introduction of GM Food Crops

India Decides to Go Slow on the Introduction of GM Food Crops
India’s Environment Ministry has blocked commercial cultivation of the world’s first genetically engineered eggplant (brinjal). While this decision represents a major victory for the civil society groups and peoples’ organisations opposed to genetically modified (GM) food crops, they are under no illusions that the war really is over.
Claude Alvares
FOR years, Monsanto – and its Indian subsidiary, Mahyco – have tried to make inroads into India’s vast agriculture by poaching its seeds and replacing them with their own. Though some of India’s publicly funded laboratories are also busy with the creation of genetically engineered (transgenic) crops, the speed with which Monsanto sought to introduce its proprietary GM seeds (cotton, brinjal) was simply astonishing.
It began its entry strategies with Bt cotton. The first step was to show how terribly bad the situation was in cotton cultivation. Mahyco argued that 60% of India’s pesticides were used on cotton alone and it was able to persuade policy makers without too much difficulty that Bt cotton – engineered to tackle the American boll worm, a major destructive insect pest – would drastically reduce the need for such poisons. Farmers in some states found they got good results with Bt cotton, while their counterparts in other states found the results unimpressive. In states like Maharashtra, a good number of farmers who had grown Bt cotton found their crops failing and committed suicide.
Even today, the government of India and policy makers are unable to categorically state a) that Bt cotton is an unqualified success; and b) whether the success in those areas where it is reported is long-term and not causing a fresh series of problems including resistance to Bt cotton and transformation of secondary insect pests (like mealy bugs) into primary ones.
From cotton to brinjal
Despite the ambivalent achievement, however, Bt cotton entrenched Monsanto firmly in Indian soil, emboldening it to venture now into food crops. For its strategy, the corporation selected the Indian eggplant (brinjal, aubergine), whose production is 8% of India’s vegetable production. The popular vegetable is a common food, relatively cheap, eaten everywhere. Some recipes encourage its raw consumption as well. However, there is no real problem of supply nor is there a crisis of production. Therefore, there was little justification for interference.
Monsanto repeated the tactic it had used for Bt cotton. Its literature now argued that farmers in India and Bangladesh sprayed their brinjal plants between 40-80 times for the duration of the crop, largely to deal with the problems created by the fruit stem borer (FSB). Such practices which led to heavy toxic residues on the vegetable, argued the corporation, would be avoided if Bt brinjal seed was used, as the Bt toxin was invariably successful in dealing very effectively with FSB.
Bt brinjal would in fact be the world’s first genetically modified vegetable produced for direct consumption. Monsanto argued that cooking the brinjal would eliminate the toxic protein and no harm would come to consumers.
Indian farmers raise some 2,500 varieties of brinjal. These varieties are protected under the Indian Biological Diversity Act and the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act. Without the explicit consent of a host of players, such varieties cannot be appropriated for proprietary gains or for use in patenting.
To get by these restrictions, Monsanto roped in the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Ford Foundation. USAID set up a project called ABSP II. ABSP II in turn set up a collaborative research project under a private Indian agency called Sathguru Consultants. Sathguru contracted with three Indian agricultural institutions to work on the Bt brinjal project. These public institutions scouted around and identified several common and popular varieties of brinjal and handed these over free of cost to Mahyco without the necessary permissions and approvals of statutory bodies. These heirloom varieties were then backcrossed with the proprietary Bt gene owned by Mahyco and the resultant seeds sent back to the three institutions for growing out.
Monsanto funded USAID for the project in the US. It subcontracted its proprietary gene to Mahyco.
The three agricultural institutions agreed to work within the framework laid down by Mahyco’s lawyers. The three institutions, for example, were explicitly banned from doing any further research with the product lines. The collaboration brought these institutions grants and monies they were finding hard to get from the government system. Though they claimed they had carried out all the ‘research’ into Bt brinjal, in actual fact the project considered them nothing more than highly paid manual workers growing out seed handed out to them as part of the ‘collaborative’ study.
In 2008 Mahyco felt sufficiently confident to approach India’s statutory body for GM clearances – the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) – for permission to commercialise its GM brinjal varieties. The GEAC is set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests of the government of India. Without its explicit consent, no GM crop may be introduced into the country at all.
Efforts made by Indian activists to move the Supreme Court to block large-scale field trials of Bt brinjal were initially successful when the Court ordered a ban. However, the same Court later relented and vacated the ban, allowing Mahyco to proceed but under restrictions. Like other public bodies, the Supreme Court also felt that if the technology was going to mitigate the food problem of a growing population, outright bans were not a solution.
Public consultations
On 14 October 2009, the GEAC finally approved Bt brinjal for commercial use after ostensibly evaluating the results of field trials. Aware that there might be a huge negative response to its decision, it passed on its report instead to the government to take the final decision. The Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, decided in public interest not to take a decision on the GEAC’s verdict till he had consulted with civil society which appeared to have legitimate concerns. Within two days of receiving the GEAC report, he announced a series of seven consultations in seven major cities (Kolkata, Bhubaneshwar, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Nahpur and Bangalore). These took place during January and February 2010. They concluded on 6 February 2010.
At each of these consultations between 1,000-2,000 persons came to depose, though only 60 or 70 could eventually be heard at each location. The Minister first heard farmers, then scientists, then NGOs and consumer organisations. After the first two consultations at Kolkata and Bhubaneshwar produced resoundingly negative verdicts, the promoters of GM crops panicked and began to bring in busloads of hired hands to attempt to overturn or dampen public anger and rebellion against the introduction of such crops. Despite such tactics, however, the overwhelming opinion remained relentlessly and consistently against the introduction of genetically engineered brinjal. The final consultation at Bangalore was telecast live by three separate TV channels.
Organic farmers raised major issues regarding contamination of non-GM crops. They argued that the government of India could not promote both organic farming and GM agriculture since national standards for organic agriculture required prohibition of the use of GM seeds or material. Pollen from GM crops was bound to affect organically grown produce, and therefore disturb their trade. (For example, the most recent startling example of such contamination occurred in the area of organic cotton exports. India is the second major exporter of organic cotton. In April 2009, European importers confirmed that around 30% of the organic cotton imported from India was contaminated with genetically modified cotton.)
Commercialisation on hold
On 9 February, Jairam Ramesh announced his decision to put commercialisation of Bt brinjal firmly on hold. The 9 February order can be found on the Ministry’s website (
In his report, the Environment Minister declared he was not against modern science or genetic engineering. However, issues raised during the public consultations were valid concerns. Several measures would have to be taken prior to a reconsideration of the decision in the interests of public safety and safeguarding biodiversity. Some of the reasons are listed below:
* There was no over-riding food security problem, production shortage or farmer distress arguments favouring release of Bt brinjal other than the need to reduce pesticide use.
* The Chief Ministers of nine Indian states wrote to the Environment Minister asking for a ban on Bt brinjal till further studies on impacts were available. Agriculture is a state subject in India.
* Non-Pesticide Management or NPM – a part of the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (one of the missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change) – scored over Bt technology as it eliminates chemical pesticide use completely whereas Bt technology only reduces the need for pesticide sprays, albeit substantially.
* The threat of contamination and of natural toxins resurfacing is worrisome. In this context, the fact that the safety tests have been carried out by the Bt brinjal developers themselves (Mahyco) and not in any independent laboratory raises legitimate doubts about their reliability.
* There is a lack of a large-scale publicly funded biotechnology effort in agriculture to compete with and countervail Monsanto’s expertise and capabilities so that it does not jeopardise national sovereignty. Further, fingers have been pointed at the manner of funding of the Bt-related research in government-owned Tamilnadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore (TNAU) and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad as well as TNAU’s right to transfer products and germplasm to Monsanto.
* India is undoubtedly the country of origin for brinjal. The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has pointed out the likelihood of diversity loss due to gene flow (also relevant is the experience of Bt-cotton seeds taking over non-Bt seeds).
* The Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur has, in the light of its review of Bt cotton in India, highlighted the need for development of data regarding pest resistance and strategies for proactive Insect Resistance Management as well as for resistance monitoring after release, all to be carried out independently.
* Many countries, particularly in Europe, have banned GM foods. China’s policy is to be extremely autious about introduction of GM in food crops, even when it has a very strong publicly-funded programme in GM technology unlike India.
* The current standards by which the GEAC has formulated its decision to approve Bt brinjal do not match global regulatory norms to which India is a party, specifically, the provisions in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, pertaining to public consultations prior to the release of GM food crops and those governing risk assessment, Article 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) which echoes the precautionary principle and Section 45 of Codex Alimentarius containing ‘Guidelines for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA Plants’.
* Scientists in the USA, France, Australia, UK and New Zealand have written to the Minister raising very serious doubts on the way tests have been conducted in India for Bt brinjal. Seventeen noted scientists from different countries addressed a joint letter to the Prime Minister on 8 February 2010 giving scientific reasons against the release of Bt brinjal.
* The Indian Council of Medical Research and the Drug Controller to the Government of India have recommended that chronic toxicity and other associated tests be carried out independently, drawing a
parallel with independent testing for drugs on human beings, instead of relying on developer companies’ data. Doctors for Food and Safety, a network of doctors across the country, have warned of the health hazards related to GM foods in general, Bt brinjal in particular, and the possibility of loss of medicinal properties of brinjal used in Ayurveda, Siddha, Homeopathy and Unani (Indian systems of medicine).
* The decision on Bt brinjal also has to take note of the public interest litigation filed with the Supreme
Court which is pending response from the Union of India on the steps taken to protect traditional crops. It is also relevant that the Supreme Court has invoked the precautionary principle as a guiding instrument in environmental decisions.
The Environment Minister’s decision was promptly attacked by two other Ministers in the Indian Cabinet, the Minister of Science and Technology (which hosts the Department of Biotechnology) and the Minister of Agriculture. The Agriculture Minister dashed off a letter to the Prime Minister claiming that the decision would not only be a setback for Indian agriculture but would affect investments in future exploitation of GM technologies. 
On 24 February, the Prime Minister called all the warring Ministers for a joint meeting at which it was resolved that the moratorium on Bt brinjal and GM food crops would continue.
Draconian bill
Unrelenting, the Minister of Science and Technology resurrected instead the Biotechology Regulatory Authority Bill drawn up by his Ministry which had been in cold storage for eight years and pressed for its introduction in Parliament. The bill seeks to wrest control of decision-making on issues relating to genetic engineering from the Ministry of Environment and park these at the Ministry of Science and Technology. One of the most draconian features of the bill would enable the authorities to imprison and fine critics of biotechnology. One clause in the proposed bill which has raised a hue and cry in India reads as follows:
‘Whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products specified in Part I or Part II or Part III of the Schedule I, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year and with fine, which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both.’
The bill also has punishments prescribed for illegal introduction of GM crops though if past experience is any guide, these will hardly be implemented. Corporations like Monsanto are keen to push their crops into India as quickly as possible as there is very little monitoring of the agricultural sector by any of the government authorities. Take the area of pesticides: large quantities of illegal pesticides are imported and used with impunity by farmers without proper supervision. Since a large number of farmers are illiterate they are unable to read the instructions for safe use. In a state like Punjab – which heralded the Green Revolution – exposure to deadly pesticides is generating a steady number of cancer cases which are now being documented with horror by the medical authorities. Yet it is very rare to find a pesticide manufacturer or distributor in jail even though their activities harm both people and the environment.
The case of India’s first genetically engineered crop (Bt cotton) is also quite revealing. More than 90% of cotton in some Indian states is now genetically engineered and around 60% comes from only one seed company: Mahyco. In many cotton-growing areas, non-GM cotton seed is simply not available. Dealers refuse to stock them. A large number of unauthorised seed multipliers have emerged and packets of fake GM seeds are readily available all over the country. None of the conditions imposed on the cultivation of Bt cotton by the GEAC, especially maintenance of isolation distances or buffer zones, are being followed. Yet, despite these violations, approvals for Bt cotton are not being recalled.
During some of the consultations, farmers did make the claim that Bt brinjal was already being grown in some pockets in the country in order to pre-empt any negative consequences flowing from a ban. GM promoters know that once seeds are in the hands of farmers, there will be no turning back.
At least for now civil society in India has won the battle. However, further battles loom ahead. Whether India decides finally in favour of GM food crops or decides to bypass them will also depend on decisions being enforced by civil societies in other countries. Therefore there is an urgent need for all societies to organise collective action to ensure that the people and animals of the planet are safeguarded forever from genetically tampered food.                    
Claude Alvares is Director of the Central Secretariat of the Organic Farming Association of India, located in Goa, India.


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