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Mainstream, VOL L, No 20, May 5, 2012

Moratorium on Bt Brinjal

Sunday 13 May 2012, by D. Bandyopadhyay

On February 9, 2010, the then Minister of Environment and Forests, Government of India, Jairam Ramesh, imposed an indefinite moratorium on the introduction of Bt Brinjal in India. It is necessary and desirable to quote the order verbatim. It reads as follows:

It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjals 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 brinjals in our country.
This is a landmark decision of the Ministry to prevent the invasion of genetically modified seeds for the cereal crops, vegetables and fruits relentlessly sponsored by a couple of giant TNCs simply for their own profit. Their money power is so enormous that they can sway both the public opinion and professionals in their favour through publicity blitzkrieg and other means not necessarily fair. It must be recorded that the Minister showed tremendous courage in issuing the moratorium order against the teeth of opposition both from within and outside. Soon thereafter he was shifted from this Ministry with promotion to Cabinet rank to another Ministry. Corridor gossip has it that the the toxin exuded by this moratorium had something to do with it. But in the absence of any further collateral hard evidence, I would not give much credence to that rumour.

Though the order was in respect of only Bt Brinjals, the principle enunciated in it would have universal application. Thus it would make the entry of any such genetically modified seeds into India difficult.

The Ministry’s decision on commercialisation of Bt Brinjal was given in the format of a judgement of a court. Evidences on both sides were stated and appraised before the informed decision was given. The style was quite unlike the decision of a usual file order. Anyway the Minister deserves applause for what he did. It would have a long-standing impact on human health and our biodiversity.

Incidentally, it may be mentioned that the Supreme Court invoked the precautionary principle as a guiding instrument in environ-mental decisions. In AP Pollution Control Board versus M.V. Nayudu [1999 (2) SCC 718], it was observed:
There is nothing to prevent deicison-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.

The principle of “erring on the side of caution” came in quite handy for the Minister in setting aside the recommendation of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for large-scale trials and environmental release of genetically modified organism. The GEAC, perhaps for the sake of prudence, left the final decision regarding release of Bt Brinjal to the government “for taking a final view of the matter”. That gave the Minister the route to reconsider and give an informed decision against it.

The Minister was obviously handicapped. His top scientific body supported the release. He therefore went to public hearings in Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Chandi-garh, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Almost 8000 people from different sections of society enthusiastically participated in these seven public hearings.

He wrote to several State governments seeking their opinions. Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Bihar and West Bengal responded in writing. They all opposed introduction of Bt Brinjal. The Chief Ministers of Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh verbally informed the Minister of their opposition.
There was a serious apprehension in the public mind that Monsanto would control our food chain if Bt Brinjal was released. Monsanto and a couple of other TNCs have boundless financial power which they would unleash anytime anywhere to get decisions in their favour and to carry on R&D operations which are immensely costly. One Indian firm, Mahyco, deals with these activities. But Monsanto has the controlling 26 per cent share in this company. Thus by itself and through its subsidiaries Monsanto controls the Geneti-cally Modified (GM) seed market of India. In fact it has a dominant position in the world GM seed market. If through Bt Brinjal it could get entry in India’s food related agronomy, it would in no time control the food economy subverting both the food security and political sovereignty of the country. This is the sinister possibility against which we have to take guard.

WE have the experience of Bt Cotton. The stark fact is that according to the National Crime Bureau, 2,50,619 farmers, mostly Bt-Cotton farmers, committed suicide between 1995 and 2010 mainly because of indebtedness. Bt seeds are highly cost-intensive. They require irrigation throughout. Though initially production goes up, later on production not only stagnates but also declines. It has happened in the case of Bt Cotton. Under the circumstances farmers are lured by the pros-pect of immediate gain only to suffer in the long run.

More importantly, most of the GM seeds are terminator seeds. They would have to be bought every year from outlets controlled by Monsanto as any other TNC. The prices of seeds are hiked regularly. As a consequence the cost of cultivation goes on mounting resulting in heavier indebtedness which ultimately leads, in some cases, to suicides.

Dr P.M. Bhargava, who is the Supreme Court appointed member of the GEAC and who is himself an eminent bioitechnologist, found that Mahyco did not conduct eight essential tests before recommending the product to the GEAC. Mahyco is in a way controlled by Monsanto. There had never been any independent appraisal of the long-term effects of Bt Brinjal on human health and environment.

Many countries in Europe have already banned GM foods. China has indigenously developed GM seeds. But it has not released them for human consumption. There are several international instruments on GM food. These instruments lay down very strict conditionalities for the testing of GM seeds. In India none of these tests were conducted. The GEAC went by the results of tests conducted by the developers, that is, Monsanto and Mahyco. This is against any basic principle of natural justice. Most of the independent scienti-fic opinions in the world are against GM seeds as have been developed and are sought to be marketed now.

West Bengal is the largest producer of brinjal in India. Its share in production is 30 per cent followed by Odisha 20 per cent and Bihar 11 per cent. In our State we have a stake in maintaining our traditional seeds and brinjal plants. According to the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), there are 3951 collections in the Bureau and the number of diversity-rich districts is 134. The Bureau informs that diversity-rich regions are likely to be affected by the introduction of Bt Brinjal due to the gene flow. This is an important argument, particularly when seen in the light of the experience we have had in cotton where Bt Cotton has overtaken non-Bt seeds. To preserve our health and biodiversity, we must avoid Bt Brinjal till such time when intensive and extensive independent researches prove to the contrary. The money power of a mega-TNC should not be allowed to destroy our food sovereignty for its own profit.

Architect of ‘Operation Barga’ during the Left Front Government in West Bengal, the author was Secretary (Rural Development) and Secretary (Revenue) in the Union Government. Now retired, he is currently a Member of the Rajya Sabha representing the Trinamul Congress.

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