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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 37, September 4, 2010

Why the Moratorium on Bt Brinjal should Continue

Wednesday 8 September 2010, by Bharat Dogra

On February 9, 2010 Jairam Ramesh, the Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, announced the important decision of a moratarium on Bt brinjal which was widely welcomed-not just in India but also at the global level-on grounds of health, environment and safety. However, a relatively small but extremely powerful section of vested interests set in motion high-power efforts to remove this moratorium.

To give an idea of how strong these vested interests are, we may mention here just two facts. Firstly, some extremely powerful politicians and technocrats have been behaving as though they are the brokers or employees of these vested interests. Secondly, the MNC which most visibly represents these interests has got away so far with the most shocking unethical practices, including large-scale bribery to get its highly harmful products/crops approved.

So now the democratic forces fighting for safety, health and environment protection have to initiate an even bigger effort to counter these extremely powerful forces. This effort can start with the excellent document which Jairam Ramesh released while announcing the moratorium on Bt brinjal. In this document the Minister clearly stated how widespread the opposition to Bt brinjal was. To quote from this report, "All States which have written to me have expressed apprehension on Bt brinjal and have called for extreme caution. Because this is extremely important in our federal framework and agriculture is a State subject, I summarise below the views of the State governments that have been submitted in writing to me by the Chief Ministers/Agriculture Ministers:

"Andhra Pradesh: ’It is clear that the data generated, the tests conducted and the information disseminated by GEAC are not sufficient for suggesting the commercial release of Bt brinjal....Until safety parameters in terms of environment, human and animal health are clearly established, release of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation is to be deferred.’

"Kerala: ’Considering all this, Government of Kerala has taken a decision to prohibit all environmental release of GMOs and keep the state totally GM free. We would request the Honorable Prime Minister to reconsider the policy of GM in a national scale and declare a moratorium at least for the next fifty years.’

"Chhattisgarh: ’Before giving permission for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, all tests to establish full impacts, including negative impacts, on human and animal health and on the environment should be carried out.’

"Karnataka: ’The commercial release of Bt-brinjal should be deferred till the issue is thoroughly examined from all the angles by taking into account the views of all stakeholders and conducting a long-term research for its bio-safety and its consequent contributions to food security and farmers well-being.’

"Bihar: ’The Rajya Kisan Ayog is not in favour of the introduction of Bt brinjal in the state at this point of time. The recommendation of the Rajya Kisan Ayog has been considered by the State Government and the State Government fully endorses the view of the Ayog.’

"West Bengal: ’I have got the report of the Expert Committee of the GEAC downloaded. I feel that the matter needs thorough examination by the experts in the field. I am requesting some members of the erstwhile State Agriculture Commission to examine the report and forward their views to the government to enable us to take a holistic view on the subject.’

"Orissa: ’The Government of Orissa does not support the introduction of Bt-brinjal at this stage and until sufficient trials are made and interests of small and marginal farmers of the state are safeguarded.’

"In addition, the CM of Uttarakhand has spoken to me and conveyed the decision to ban Bt brinjal in that State. The Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu has informed me that the state of Tamil Nadu is not in favour of commercialisation of Bt brinjal now. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister has told me that Bt-brinjal should be introduced only after all doubts and fears have been properly dispelled."

Secondly, this document stated that as far as the objective of reducing pesticide use is concerned, other proven alternatives are available. This document informed: "it is worth recalling that there are now close to 6 lakh farmers in Andhra Pradesh fully practicing NPM (non-pesticide management) agriculture over an area of about 20 lakh acres. I have myself been seeing this initiative over the past four years. The advantage of NPM is that it eliminates chemical pesticide use completely whereas Bt-technology only reduces the pesticide spray, albeit substantially. Incidentally, one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change is the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture of which NPM is an integral part."

Thirdly, this document clearly said that the tests on the safety of Bt brinjal conducted so far are not adequate.

"While there may be a debate on the nature and number of tests that need to be carried out for establishing human safety, it is incontro-vertible that the tests have been carried out by the Bt-brinjal developers themselves and not in any independent laboratory. This does raise legitimate doubts on the reliability of the tests, doubts that I cannot ignore."

Fourthly, the document stated that the contamination threat is very real: "The fact that brinjal is very largely a cross-pollinated crop according to the generally accepted scientific consensus makes the threat of contamination with the use of Bt-brinjal on other varieties a particularly worrisome issue."

Fifthly, the document also confirms that the loss of biodiversity threat is very real. "Apart from being the world’s largest producer of brinjal, India is undoubtedly the country of origin as far as brinjal is concerned as testified by Vavilov in 1928. Data that has been made available to me by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources of the ICAR reveals that there are 3951 collections in the Bureau and the number of diversity-rich districts is 134. The Bureau also points out that diversity-rich regions are likely to be affected by the introduction of Bt-brinjal due to gene flow. The loss of diversity argument cannot be glossed over especially when seen in light of the experience we have had in cotton where Bt-cotton seed has overtaken non-Bt seeds."

Sixthly, the document has also refuted the oft stated claim of GM-crop supporters that China is going in rapidly for these crops. Jairam Ramesh has written very clearly: "I have spoken with my counterpart in China and he has informed me that China’s policy is to encourage research in GM technology but to be extremely cautious when it comes to introduction in food crops."

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IN addition Jairam Ramesh has mentioned the negative views on Bt brinjal he received from several eminent scientists.

Prof G.E. Seralini from France, in a detailed report, has pointed out several flaws in the EC-II report and concludes that "the risk on human and mammalian health is too high for authorities to take the decision to commercialise this GM brinjal".

Dr David Schubert of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, USA says that Bt brinjal should definitely not be introduced in India since it poses serious environmental and health risks, will increase social and political dependence on private companies and will entail higher costs at all levels of the food chain.

What is most interesting is the expert advice Jairam Ramesh got on health impacts. As he has written, "I have had a discussion with both the Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research as well as with the Drug Controller to the Government of India. Both have recommended that chronic toxicity and other associated tests should be carried out indepen-dently. The parallel has been drawn with drugs where during the crucial clinical trials phase, independent testing is carried out on human beings instead of relying on just the data generated by the developer companies themselves. The DG, ICMR told me that in the face of contradictory evidence of the health effects he would advocate more caution and further tests.

"Doctors for Food and Safety, a network of around 100 doctors across the country, have sent a representation on the health hazards related to GM foods in general and Bt-brinjal in particular. They have drawn attention to the recommendations made by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine that GM foods have not been properly tested for human consumption and that there are substantial risks associated with the use of GM foods.

"I have also been informed that the Indian Systems of Medicine including ayurveda, siddha, homeopathy and unani use brinjal as a medicinal ingredient, both in raw and cooked form, for treatment of respiratory diseases and that the entire brinjal plant is used in such preparations. There is fear that Bt-brinjal will destroy these medicinal properties due to loss of synergy, differences in the alkaloids and changes in other active principles."

Jairam Ramesh has emphasised legal support as an approach based on caution. The Supreme Court has invoked the precautionary principle as a guiding instrument in environmental decisions [AP Pollution Control Board versus M.V. Nayudu (1999(2)SCC718)] by relying on the following:

"There is nothing to prevent decision-makers from assessing the record and concluding there is inadequate information on which to reach determination. If it is not possible to make a decision with ’some’ confidence, then it makes sense to err on the side of caution and prevent activities that may cause serious or irreparable harm. An informed decision can be made at a later stage when additional data is available or resources permit further research."

Keeping in view all these factors, Jairam Ramesh had chosen his words carefully while announcing the moratorium on Bt brinjal.
"Based on all the information presented in the preceding paragraphs and when there is no clear consensus within the scientific community itself, when there is so much opposition from the state governments, when responsible civil society organisations and eminent scientists have raised many serious questions that have not been answered satisfactorily, when the public sentiment is negative and when Bt brinjal will be the very first genetically-modified vegetable to be introduced anywhere in the world and when there is no over-riding urgency to introduce it here, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt-brinjal, till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, 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.

"A moratorium implies rejection of this particular case of release for the time being; it does not, in any way, mean conditional acceptance. This should be clearly understood."

Thus it is clear that within this basic document, there is very strong and solid evidence and argument in favour of moratorium on Bt brinjal. If to this we add the vast and growing opinion of many eminent scientists on the manifold hazards and uncertainties of GM crops in general, then it is very clear that the moratorium should definitely continue as basically vested interests were trying to use Bt brinjal to clear the path for introduction of many other GM food crops as well.

Exploring the basics of this issue, a leading researcher and activist Kavitha Kuruganti has written: "Bt brinjal is a genetically modified (GM) food crop created by inserting a bacterial gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thurengiensis into the brinjal DNA to make the plant produce a toxin against a particular pest (fruit and shoot borer). This is being sought to be introduced in India, the Philippines and Bangladesh on the claim that it will bring down pesticide use in brinjal/eggplant/aubergine cultivation, reduce pest-related losses and increase yields and bring in better incomes for farmers. While these are the claims around this novel produce, there are many unaddressed concerns around Bt brinjal even as there are also unanswered questions on the very rationale extended for wanting to bring in the Bt food crop.

"Bt brinjal was sought to be made into the Trojan horse by the biotech promoters and proponents for an easier entry of various GM seeds and such technologies into India’s food and farms sector. This was quite apparent to everyone and the ones who were resisting Bt brinjal were also aware of this."

So the issue at stake is very big indeed as what the vested interests want is not just Bt brinjal but to use Bt brinjal to open up India’s entire food and agriculture system for GM crops. It has been pointed out trials on about 40 such crops have been taking place, including such basic staples as rice. The basic issue is that multinational companies want to gain control of India’s food and agriculture farms and spending billions of rupees, they have already captured the support of some of India’s leading politicians and technocrats. Now it is for the democratic forces to prepare for a long peaceful struggle to prevent these corrupt forces from destroying India’s food and farming system.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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