In these times of political mendacity, one is thankful for small mercies.
Amidst much controversy in the public realm over Bt-brinjal, and powerful forces pushing for it both within the Indian government and without, environment minister Jairam Ramesh has taken an important first step. After a series of seven sharply argumentative, and often acrimonious, public consultations in different cities, he has imposed a moratorium on the release of Bt-brinjal. This moratorium will hold “till such time independent scientific studies establish ... the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country."
As the debate on the benefits and hazards of the GM crop raged on in recent weeks, one came to recognise that Bt-brinjal is only the thin edge of the wedge: a first in a long list of GM food crops undergoing field trials, including tomato, potato and rice. Although, the battle is hardly over, the minister’s decision demonstrates that public opinion is vitally important to counter anti-democratic impulses pushing forward a corporate agenda in the country, inimical to the interests of people at large. Indeed, the future of our farmers, the crops in their fields, and the food on our plates, continue to be at stake.
In India, the brinjal has a long history. In his A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, the renowned food historian K T Achaya explains that it “may have originated from a wild ancestor in India by human selection for reduced spininess and bitterness, bigger fruit size and annual habit.” Brinjals can be small and globular, large or long, purple, green, yellowish, white or striped, and are found abundantly all over India. Whether one savours it fried, stuffed with spices, as a bharta, or in a rice dish, it is difficult to imagine most Indian cuisines without the brinjal.
To get back to our story, on October 14, 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India’s bio-technology regulator, approved commercial cultivation of a GM variety, Bt-brinjal, created by inserting a toxin producing gene (Cry 1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into brinjal. This is said to make the plant resistant to certain insects. The GEAC further referred its decision to the Government for taking a final view on the matter.
Hastily taken and mired in controversy, the GEAC decision evoked a wide spectrum of protests from farmers, scientists, and consumers alike, who raised concerns about pest management, environmental impact, threat to biodiversity, health safety, farmers’ seed rights, livelihoods, and consumer choice. On the other hand, industry promoters claimed that Bt-brinjal, being insect resistant and high yielding, would be beneficial to small farmers, reduce pesticide use, and have minimal environmental impact.
In order to explore this vociferous debate surrounding the GM crop, it would be useful to briefly trace some of the more recent fault lines in the widely criticized process which culminated in the GEAC approval last year.
In India, Bt-brinjal is being promoted by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech: a joint-venture between Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited, and the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seeds, US agribusiness giant Monsanto. Following submissions from independent scientists, consumer groups, farmer organizations and other NGOs, the GEAC constituted an expert committee (EC1) in 2006 to review all submissions. In July 2007, the committee permitted large scale field trials of Bt-brinjal.
A briefing paper by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) – a technology and policy research organization which works with farmers – states that “no GM Brinjal has been released for an advanced stage of field trials in open conditions anywhere in the world”. The GEAC had thus allowed large scale open trials for Bt-brinjal “in a country which has repeatedly proven itself incapable of regulating GM technology and has allowed contamination as a routine affair.” Here, the CSA was referring to the proliferation at the trials stage of illegal Bt Cotton – the first GM crop in India.
A recent report in Down To Earth throws light on the constitution of the second GEAC expert committee (EC2) that gave its approval for commercial cultivation of Bt-brinjal in October of 2009. According to the report, “… over a period of time a third of the committee members have been in some way associated with either the seed company Mahyco that developed Bt-brinjal or pro-Mahyco organizations.” The report further states that P M Bhargava, a leading molecular biologist and Supreme Court nominee to the GEAC, wrote to the environment minister on October 20, 2009, saying that the expert panel was under pressure to clear Bt-brinjal. Further, CNN-IBN recently reported that a sections in the bio-safety data submitted by Mahyco to the GEAC – one of the crucial texts based on which the expert committee gave the go ahead – says that uncooked non-Bt-brinjal also tested positive for Bt protein, a clear sign of data manipulation.
Against the backdrop of the debate on Bt-brinjal, it would be important to keep in mind that the GM food crop had been cleared for commercial cultivation by the GEAC without carrying out all the required tests. As Dr Bhargava reminds us, “According to the international scientific community, some 30 tests should be done before any genetically modified organism release. In the case of Bt-brinjal less than a dozen of these were conducted.” Moreover, there is no labelling system in place to enable consumers to make an informed decision about the food they eat. By clearing Bt-brinjal, the GEAC had violated the provisions of India's Consumer Protection Act. Also, crucially, there is no liability law in India, by way of which liability for damage due to Bt-brinjal can be fixed.
Perhaps most significantly, GM crops come packaged with aggressive marketing techniques and patents pushed by multinational seed giants, who trap farmers into buying more expensive GM seeds by denying them access to their very own seeds that they have always saved and exchanged amongst themselves. Inconsiderate of their putative benefits, GM crops being developed by multinational corporations pose a grave threat. By deploying the tools of modern genetic engineering, GM crops enable these corporations to take over biotic resources. If the SEZ's represent a major land-grab operation afoot in the country, can we not make the same inference with respect to the attempts to push through GM crops? In this sense, incorporating genes into plants is a modern version of the 'enclosure of the commons'. While it is an undisputed fact that pesticide use is a grave threat to public health in India, the claims on behalf of GM crops are no answer. Lurking behind the mask of technical sophistication and 'scientific objectivity', MNCs like Monsanto have their eyes set on reaping huge profits by taking over our biotic resources and controlling our choices. Such a monopoly will have a telling effect on both the beleaguered Indian farmers and the consumers.
While questions about the ethics of genetic engineering, and the future of our food security and sovereignty hang in the balance, it is important not to be complacent about the future of Bt-brinjal, or GM crops for that matter. As the environment minister has stated in his report about the decision taken, his “concern is with Bt-brinjal alone and not with the larger issue of genetic engineering and biotechnology in agriculture”. Further in this report, he states his hope that “the moratorium period will be used to build a broader consensus so that as a country we are able to harness the full potential of GM technology in agriculture in a safe and sustainable manner.” In the larger context of the debate on GM crops, one needs to wait and see how this issue will eventually develop. Without being cynical, one must recognise the possibility of political manipulation that is the norm of the day. As India's past demonstrates, private interests pushed in the name of development, like dams and power plants, seldom ever go away. Rather, they tend to reappear in different garbs. Does this moratorium give us hope that Bt-brinjal will not become an incubus, waiting to reappear?