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Bt Brinjal Halted, Victory for Indian democracy

In a dramatic move, India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh halted the commercial cultivation of ‘Bt brinjal’, the world’s first genetically modified (GM) eggplant with insecticidal toxin protein from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) [1-3]. Bt brinjal is intended to target the shoot and fruit borer insect pest of the crop.

Bt Brinjal Halted

ISIS Report 19/04/10

Victory for Indian democracy

In a dramatic move, India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh halted the commercial cultivation of ‘Bt brinjal’, the world’s first genetically modified (GM) eggplant with insecticidal toxin protein from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) [1-3]. Bt brinjal is intended to target the shoot and fruit borer insect pest of the crop. The Minister made his announcement on 9 February 2010 after a series of public hearings in seven states and a consultation process with scientists, agricultural experts, farmers’ organisations, consumer groups, and non-governmental organisations. He said [3]: “It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach… till such time as independent scientific studies establish to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals the safety of the product”.

The brinjal crop has a special place in Indian agriculture. India is the largest producer of the crop in the world and its country of origin. Some 2, 500 varieties are cultivated by Indian farmers, among which, those with natural resistance to the brinjal shoot and fruit borer insect already exist [4]. As the crop is largely cross-pollinated, transgene contamination poses a big problem in protecting the natural biodiversity.

Ramesh’s decision was widely hailed as a major victory for civil society and Indian democracy. The Environment Minister achieved the status of a national hero for standing up to intense pressure from the USA and its agents that had already manipulated India’s national Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to approve commercial planting of Bt brinjal [5]. Ramesh pointedly renamed GEAC to Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee on announcing the moratorium.

Ramesh’s announcement of the moratorium included the following [1, 2]:

 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.

 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.

 Many countries, particularly in Europe, have banned GM foods. China’s policy is to be extremely cautious about introduction of GM in food crops, even when it has a very strong publicly-funded programme in GM technology, unlike India.

 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 (see [6] Bt Brinjal Unfit for Human Consumption, SiS 41). 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.

 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 losing the medicinal properties of brinjal used in Ayurveda, Siddha, Homeopathy and Unani (Indian systems of medicine). 

Neo-colonialism by GM seed

US agbioech giant Monsanto and several other corporations have been consolidating their control of the world’s seed supply to such an extent that it has triggered a nation-wide anti-trust hearing in the US [7] (US Farmers Oppose ‘Big Ag’ in Anti-Trust Hearing, SiS 46). 

Claude Alvares, Director of the Central Secretariat of the Organic Farming Association of India based in Goa, accuses Monsanto of poaching India’s seeds and replacing them with its own [2]. Monsanto, via its Indian subsidiary Mahyco, has been making inroads into India’s agriculture and agricultural resources in what amounts to neo-colonialism by GM seed.  This involves taking the country’s seeds for direct genetic modification, or hybridising the indigenous varieties with Monsanto’s own patented GM varieties, thereby establishing ownership over the indigenous varieties and the hybrid seeds. In the process, the indigenous varieties also become contaminated forever.

This process began in earnest with the commercial approval of Bt cotton in 2003. Bt cotton in the guised of hundreds of hybrids with Indian varieties, spread rapidly throughout the country, despite strenuous protests from farmers and consumers; the consequences were disastrous. Bt cotton accelerated farm suicides by increasing farmers’ burden of debt.  Crop failures or bad harvests for two successive seasons on top of the exorbitant cost of GM seeds would be enough to build up debt to a level that drives farmers to take their own lives. Furthermore, Bt cotton soon created secondary and new pests, resistant pests, new diseases, and above all, soils so depleted in nutrients and beneficial microorganisms that they may cease to support the growth of any crop in a decade [8, 9] (Farmer Suicides and Bt Cotton Nightmare Unfolding in India, Mealy Bug Plagues Bt Cotton in India and Pakistan, SiS 45)

It was the Bt cotton crisis that has galvanised the entire nation to oppose Monsanto’s Bt brinjal. 

The fight continues

The Environment Minister’s decision to halt Bt brinjal was promptly attacked by two other ministers in the Indian Cabinet [2], the Minister of Science and Technology (responsible for the Department of Biotechnology) and the Minister of Agriculture. On 24 February, the Prime Minister called a meeting at which it was resolved that the moratorium on Bt brinjal and GM food crops would continue. Meanwhile, the Minister of Science and Technology resurrected 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 transfers control of making decision on genetic engineering from the Ministry of Environment to the Ministry of Science and Technology.

One of the most draconian features of the bill is the right to imprison and fine critics of biotechnology. The relevant clause states: “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 includes punishments for illegal introduction of GM crops, “though if past experience is any guide, these will hardly be implemented,” says Alvares. 

References

1. “Reasons for the Bt brinjal moratorium”, India Together, 12 February 2010, http://www.indiatogether.org/2010/feb/env-btbrinjal.htm

2. Alvares C. India decides to go slow on the introduction of GM food crops
Third World Resurgence, Issue No. 234 http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/resurgence/2010/234/eco1.htm

3. Barker D. Biotech eggplant: ignoring the resounding ‘no’. GENEWATCH 2010, 23 (1)
http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/GeneWatch/GeneWatchPage.aspx?pageId=239

4. Swarup V. Genetic resources and breeding of aubergine (Solanum melongena L.). Acta Horticulturae 1995, 412, 71-79.

5. “How Bt brinjal was cleared, Anti-GM groups say expert panel acted under pressure”, Savvy Soumya Misra. Down to Earth, accessed 4 April 2010, http://www.downtoearth.org.in/full6.asp?foldername=20091231&filename=news&sec_id=4&sid=3

6. Burcher S. Bt Brinjal unfit for human consumption. Science in Society 41, 50-51, 2009.

7. Novotny E. US farmers oppose ‘Big Ag’ in anti-trust hearing. Science in Society 46 (to appear).

8. Ho MW. Farmer suicides and Bt cotton nightmare unfolding in India. Science in Society 45, 32-39, 2010.

9. Ho MW. Mealy bug plagues Bt cotton in India and Pakistan. Science in Society 45, 40-43, 2010. 

Activists, scientists and NGOs support decision on Bt brinjal

lBS Reporter / New Delhi February 10, 2010, 0:48 IST

Scientists and activists have welcomed the decision of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to defer commercialisation of Bt brinjal. Even Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), which created the genetically modified vegetable, said it respects the verdict. “Mahyco has always followed the directives of the Department of Biotechnology and GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, an apex body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests). Mahyco is confident that sound science based on evidence obtained over nine years of rigorous testing will prevail and India’s farmers, consumers and farm labour, and the environment, will benefit from agriculture biotechnology,” the seed company said in a statement today.

The government has decided to impose a moratorium on the cultivation of Bt brinjal till independent scientific studies establish the safety of the product on health and environment.  Terming Jairam Ramesh’s step as a correct one, agriculture scientist M S Swaminathan said: “This is a breathing spell to clear the apprehensions of public, states and scientists and develop a regulatory mechanism to inspire public confidence and remove fears about Bt brinjal.” He added that the ministry has not pushed it under the carpet. “This breathing spell should be used to carefully look at the situation for everyone’s concern,” he said.

Suggesting a way to develop a regulatory mechanism, Swaminathan said: “Public consultations on the issue should be analysed and a report should be prepared on the points of agreement and disagreement. The regulatory mechanism should weigh the benefits in a transparent manner and Parliament should take it up for discussion. The analysis of public consultations should yield a positive result in the long run. This breathing spell will also give us time to put our house in order to put in place the mechanism by the end of this year.” Sunita Narain, director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) supported the verdict. She said: “We have consistently voiced our concerns. We are not against the use of genetically modified technology to improve crop yields. But we definitely oppose the introduction of Bt brinjal.”

She further said: “Here, for the first time, we are genetically modifying a common vegetable which is used nearly daily in most of our homes. Brinjal is consumed directly and not processed into bread or used in other processed foods. In many parts of the country, it is even eaten uncooked. We, therefore, need to be extremely cautious in our review of this food.”

http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/activists-scientistsngos-support-decisionbt-brinjal/385234/