February 9, 2010, witnessed one of the most bizarre episodes in governance by the UPA-II combine when the Minister of State for Science and Environment Jairam Ramesh rejecting for the present acceptance of the Bt brinjal proposal declared that “my decision is final”.
This is symptomatic of the arrogance exhibited by most by an Environment Minister in the Government of India since the institution had come into being in 1989. Replying to a question by the newspaper correspondent after the announcement of postponing the decision on Bt brinjal, he replied: “The GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) comes under my Ministry. I am the Minister in Charge, My word is final and the buck stops here. Unless, of course, the Prime Minister asks it to be brought to the Cabinet and then I have to take it to the Cabinet.”
Interestingly, by saying this he has contradicted the statement by the Minister for Science and Technology Prithviraj Chavan who has described the Bt brinjal as perfectly safe.
Similarly, Agriculture Minister Mr Sharad Pawar has said: “Conventional Technologies of agriculture are inadequate to meet the formidable challenges The most compelling case for biotechnology and more specifically transgenic crops is their capability to increase crop productivity, lower production costs, conserving bio-diversity ,efficient use of external and improvement of economics and social benefits…. the recent decision on Bt brinjal should not be seen as a setback to our efforts ,but a challenge which we need to surmount.”
Whatever be the logic behind Mr Jairam Ramesh’s stand, when two other Ministers in the same Council of Ministers have differing views, it is for the Prime Minister to come in and resolve the difference. Many consider it shocking that the Prime Minister has not opened his mouth even once so far on this issue.
The controversy over Bacillus Thuringiensis brinjal, popularly known as Bt brinjal, needs a rational solution. Bt brinjal, a genetically modified strain created by India’s number one seeds company Mahyco in collaboration with American multinational Monsanto, claims to improve yields and help the agriculture sector. It is also pest-resistant and safe for consumption. In a country desperately trying to provide food and water to an exploding population, introduction of Bt brinjal could be an important factor in reducing both the cost and availability of brinjal, which is a commonly used as vegetable, it is argued. However, the debate over the safety of Bt brinjal continues with mixed views from scientists working for the government, farmers and environment activists.
Whatever be the logic of Mr Ramesh, it is abundantly clear that he has gone by the views expressed by activists most of whom are not qualified at all to speak on the subject. This is typical of some of the decision-making processes this Government has adopted.
For the last one month or so, hooliganism had a field day when discussions on the subject cropped up. Most activists and some journalists too have participated in this debate without they being adequately qualified to speak on the subject. A journalist who was this reporter’s colleague in a Delhi newspaper wrote a vituperative article in a local daily taking full freedom on this subject although from personal knowledge this reporter can vouch that she has had no exposure to either science or agriculture.
For journalists and other people like her, the long-cherished Green Revolution in wheat in India and rice at the International Rice Research Institute, the Philippines, have become favourite whipping boys. Since the Green Revolution had occurred before most of such journalists and activists were even born, and hence are unaware of the dire straits in which India had found herself during those days, as it was compelled to depend on PL 480 wheat from the United States because of two consecutive failures of the south-west monsoon in 1965 and 1966, when foodgrains production had dwindled from almost 90 tonnes in 1964-65 to 72 million tonnes and a little more in these two drought years.
If we had journalist activists those days like the type we come across these days, the Green Revolution would never have taken place and the population of India could have come down within “manageable limits” to the delight of the Paddock Brothers of United States who had predicted that unmanageable famines would hit India by 1975 and the Indians could not have been saved. It is another matter that thanks to the Green Revolution, India had actually stopped import of wheat under PL 480 by 1975.
It is of course true that the Green Revolution did not involve transfer of genes from one crop to another like in the case of Bt. brinjal, .What the Green Revolution had involved was transferring the inherent qualities of the Norin gene found in Japan, taken to the United States by the US Department of Agriculture and then taken to Mexico for trials in order to produce seeds capable of high yields of wheat along with the strength of the stems to withstand higher load because of higher production of the grains.
However, several countries in the world have already produced and are using what are called transgenic crops freely without any ill-effects. China has just introduced transgenic rice and countries such as Brazil and the United States are already producing and using several transgenic crops. But it is true that most European countries do not use transgenic crops.
The decision taken by Ramesh has the support of Dr MS Swaminathan, one of the foremost agricultural scientists of India. He says: “The decision is a wise step. Regulatrory system has to be credible, transparent and effective.”
However, Biocon CM Dr Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw says: “A big setback for biotechnology after Bt cotton”, adding: “I am disappointed as there is no timeframe on the moratorium.”
Dr G Padmanabhan, Former Director, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, has described the government’s decision as “Disappointing”, though the only question that needed to be answered was about yield and use of pesticides.
Dr YK Alagh, former Member, Planning Commission , says: “The decision is very unfortunate, It had been approved by regulatory authority (GEAC)…Don’t think a very good decision.” Ramesh’s decision, it is claimed, defies scientific evidence. “Should we go with science or public outcry?” asks Dr HS Gupta, Director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute.
Even many farmers are perplexed. “Who is this general public? The general public had even opposed computers when they were first launched,” Chengal Reddy, a farmers’ organisation leader says. “China has Bt rice which would be consumed three times a day. I do not see any reason for blocking Bt brinjal.”
In her Republic Day message to the nation, the President, Mrs Pratibha Patil called upon the people to launch the second green revolution in the country for increasing the yield of crops in order to meet the shortage of foodgrains in the country owing to the drought of 2009. Now if the attitude of Minister concerned is like that of Mr Jairam Ramesh, there can never be a second green revolution in the country. In fact the second green revolution has, of necessity, a gene revolution.
Experts Question Approval Of Bt Brinjal
The claimed benefits and the apparent risks emerging from inadequate regulatory and monitoring systems of the proposed introduction of Bt Brinjal, a transgenic variety of brinjal were rigorously examined at a colloquium organised by the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health (CSMCH), School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, in collaboration with Hazards Centre, New Delhi on the 27th of January.
Taking cognizance of the valid questions raised about the conflict of interestridden Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, the experts recommended adoption of precautionary principles and adherence to Cartagena protocol of which India is a party. The experts at the colloquium felt that Bt brinjal requires to be further studied by a trans-disciplinary, independent and impartial team of scientists keeping in mind the short-term and long-term consequences of genetic pollution linked acute and chronic toxicity of food chain.
The Colloquium adopted the following Resolution.
The Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in collaboration with Hazards Centre, New Delhi, organised a colloquium on Bt brinjals on the January 27, 2010. Attended by students and faculty, the house resolved as follows.
Various issues are unresolved about the problematic nature of transgenic technologies in general and Bt in particular. One core issue was the competence, the transparency and the conflict of interest in the regulatory process prior to the grant of licence to market Bt brinjal.
Safety issues have not been adequately dealt with both in terms of food safety and environmental safety. Long-term studies on allergicity and toxicity have not been carried out prior to approval.
We are also concerned about the implications for food security for the country. It is not desirable to hand over the control of seeds to transnational monopolies. To ensure that access to seed is ensured, the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) regime must retain farmer’s rights and must not reduce flexibilities in Indian law.
As per the Cartagena protocol, to which India is a signatory, transgenic versions of crops for which we are the country of origin should not be
permitted. Mexico, China and Peru follow this protocol. Thus transgenic varieties of Bt brinjal cannot be permitted in India.
A system of post-release monitoring must be put in place before commercial release is allowed into the environment to assess the performance and impact. Exhaustive socio-economic studies are necessary to assess the impact of transgenic crops on traditional agricultural systems and indigenous crops.
A proper system of labelling of GM crops must be put in place with public awareness to enable informed choices.
A system of public participation in decision- making and in regulatory bodies must be put in place. All regulatory data and bio-safety data should be available to the public.
A law of liability must also be in place before commercial release is permitted so that companies are liable to health and environmental damage that might ensue.
Till such systems are in place, this house calls for a moratorium on all transgenic crops.
The herbicide tolerant trait should not be permitted in India as this will displace agricultural labour and destroy valuable plants used as food, fodder and medicines.
There is indeed an acute agrarian crisis in the country. The solution to this does not lie in GM technologies. There are cheaper, safer, healthier options that must be explored and supported.
The participants included eminent experts like Dr Pushpa Bhargava, Founder Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Prof. Mohan Rao, Professor, CSMCH, JNU, Prof Deepak Pental, Vice Chancellor, University of Delhi, Dr Suman Sahai, Convener, Gene Campaign, Dr Rama Baru, Professor, CSMCH, JNU, Dr N Raghuram, School of Biotech, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Dr KC Bansal, Professor, National Research Centre on Plant Biotech, IARI, Prof KJ Mukherjee, School of Biotechnology, JNU and Dunu Roy, Director, Hazards Centre.
The colloquium was preceded by a letter sent by CSMCH to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. The resolution of the colloquium would be sent to the Union Agriculture Ministry and Union Health Ministry shortly besides the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
By Dr Mohan Rao
During his last visit to India in 2005, Dr Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner for service to agriculture in the world, had unhesitatingly called for introduction of genetically modified crops in the country. He had said at a function at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute that his dream was to see transgenic crops being cultivated in India. But here we have a Minister who thinks he is superior to everyone else and blocks the introduction of Bt brinjal.
The story is becoming more bizarre as every day passes with the Congress Party now coming in full support to Jairam Ramesh. According to a write-up in the Hindustan Times, the word Congress Party actually means only party president Sonia Gandhi. Should we then presume that it is Mrs Sonia Gandhi who has decided against the introduction of Bt brinjal for consumption by the people at large?
However these outlandish statements cannot obliterate the fact that not only Cabinet Ministers Sharad Pawar and Kapil Sibbal have supported the introduction of Bt brinjal, but also Mr Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State for Science and Technology, who has a background of science. Mr Chavan has stressed that new technologies like genetic engineering should not be postponed indefinitely, merely for the lack of scientific consensus. “Let there be a reasoned scientific debate. If more tests are required, those certainly should be carried out. But if there is still no unanimity within the scientific community, the Government has little option but to go by the majority and dominant scientific opinion. Slogan shouting and protests cannot be allowed to cloud our scientific vision.”
At this point, the question arises: Why didn’t the Prime Minister support the Minister who reports directly to himself? Unfortunately, one cannot but conclude that the political leadership of the UPA-II, which has little scientific talent at its disposal, has gone by the so-called popular opposition to the introduction of Bt brinjal judging by the slogan shouting indulged in by activists, who had obliterated the views of others at public hearings by Jairam Ramesh.
Bt Brinjal Is Safe
We conducted a Press Conference on January 27, 2010 and released the following information in support of the approval of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation in India, without further delay for the benefit of Indian farmers and consumers. I hope that this information would convince the National Forum of India ggroup that Bt brinjal is safe for consumption and the environment and that both the farmer and the cosumer would benefit from it. The reasons for opposition to Bt brinjal are elsewhere but not in the science, technology and the mandatory regulatory process of Bt brinjal.
There is a dire need to control the most important insect pests of brinjal that cause shoot and fruit damage resulting in marketable yield losses between 50 and 70 per cent annually. No variety or hybrid of brinjal is resistant to these pests.
Very heavy pesticide application is the major cultivation expense of brinjal.
The damaging pests start from the nursery and are carried to the next crop. Even high application of synthetic pesticides does not help because the pests are deep inside the stem and fruit tissues.
The Cry1Ac gene in Bt brinjal imparts an inbuilt systemic tolerance of about 95 per cent to the two important pests, Leucinodes orbonalis and Helicoverpa armigera.
Bt brinjal helps in reducing the cultivation expenses on the use of synthetic pesticides up to 77 per cent, benefitting millions of farmers by enhancing marketable yield. The consumer gets healthy fruit and value for the money paid. It also greatly reduces the risk from synthetic chemicals to the farmers, consumers, non-target organisms, soil, water and the environment in general.
Bt brinjal has passed through the prescribed mandatory biosafety tests according to Indian regulations. Two Expert Committees reviewed the biosafety dossier.
The Second Expert Committee concluded on October 8, 2009, that the Bt brinjal with event EE-1 (Cry 1Ac) has been extensively tested for its biosafety and no additional studies/review are necessary. Based on this, on October 14, 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee approved Bt brinjal for commercialisation.
However, the Minister for Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, had opted for further consultation with different stakeholders, which virtually overriding the decision of the GEAC. All the stakeholders had already involved themselves on the issue of Bt brinjal for about five years.
The stand taken by the MoEF created a lot of regulatory uncertainty for no valid scientific reason or environmental concern. No technology developer can afford to operate in the country to develop any biotech crop with such an uncertainty of an approval process that is not based on science.
Over 25 years of research experience, over 13 years of experience in commercial cultivation of over 25 countries and over 350 million Americans who have been consuming genetically engineered foods for 13 years have demonstrated that Bt crops are effective and safe for use.
The activist charge sheet
includes several issues, such as that a) genetically engineered (GE) products are toxic and allergenic, b) they harm non-target organisms, c) gene flow from transgenics eliminates related varieties/species, d) they become super weeds and eliminate all vegetation, e) they negatively impact ecology and biodiversity, f) there is a terminator gene in GE crops affecting the farmers’ interests, etc. They even attribute farmer suicides to failure of GE crops. There is extensive scientific literature that amply demonstrates that there is no truth in any of the above charges and allegations.
The activists make an emotional argument that India is the country of origin of brinjal, for which there is no scientific evidence.
The flower structure and pollination behaviour of such crops as tomato, potato, bell pepper and brinjal do not warrant any significant threat from gene flow among these crops (Bt or not) or their supposed relatives. They are all over 90 per cent self pollinated and gene flow was less than 2.7 per cent. Farmers do not make any effort to protect different varieties of cultivated brinjal from hybridising among themselves or with the wild Solanums, since they do not. Antibiotic resistant markers have been shown to pose no threat.
Activists cite the opposition to GE technology in some countries like in the European Union (EU), ignoring a) that in the EU itself over 300 GE traits of crops are in development, b) that EU permits cultivation or import of some GE crops, c) Europe alone imports 50 million tons of GM soybean and GM maize every year (see FAO database) mainly from Brazil and Argentina, d) that globally about 30 countries now cultivate and/or import GE crop produce, and d) that over 350 million Americans have consumed Bt crop produce for over a decade without harm. China has very recently approved Bt rice and GE maize for commercial cultivation.
Bt technology has largely affected the interests of the internationally powerful pesticide industry and conventional seed industry. The export and organic lobbies fear rejection of exports particularly by the EU if there was a GE element in the production . This is the main source of opposition to GE technology. We cannot sacrifice the country’s interests to benefit these lobby groups.
The opposition to Bt brinjal means to India nothing but a reduced marketable yield, an increased use of pesticides (with economic as well as health damage to farmers, consumers and environment). The government should decide whether to help Indian farmers or pesticide producing corporations.
The science face of the activists is comprised of persons or organisations which have always blindly opposed GE technology, without admitting even a single benefit from it. It is not just Bt brinjal that is opposed, but all GE technology, which has done wonders for over 13 years globally. These same people are also severely criticising Green Revolution technologies ignoring the enormous benefits India derived from them.
The benefits from Bt technology have been amply demonstrated in India by the commercial cultivation of Bt cotton since 2002. None of the dreadful scenarios forecasted for Bt cotton has ever materialised.
Bt brinjal has passed through extensive agronomic and biosecurity evaluation as per the mandatory provisions of the Indian Regulatory regime, during 2000-09. This process involved about 200 scientists and experts from over 15 public and private sector institutions.
The combined global scientific wisdom should be respected in evaluating GE products and the decisions should not be allowed to be hijacked by the vested interest using junk science to pursue inept politics of imported ideological imperialism, often with financial support from foreign agencies to promote their own interests.
Delay in the commercialisation of Bt brinjal will promote its clandestine cultivation as it happened with Bt cotton in Gujarat, and elsewhere. This is not in the best interests of the country.
We strongly recommend the approval of Bt brinjal for cultivation. We stand by the enormous amount of scientific evidence in support of Bt technology and its demonstrated benefits.
Prof Rao is Executive Secretary, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore
By Professor C Kameswara Rao
There is no report that the Congress president had consulted the Prime Minister on this vital issue and it is also not understandable as to why the Prime Minister has maintained silence on this serious issue for such a long time.
Meanwhile, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has come out openly in support of Bt brinjal. Its Director General Dr Sameer Kumar Brahmachary said that he was 100 per cent certain that the Bt gene was not going to enter the human body. If Bt had to enter the human body, it would probably have entered already. “We have been eating soya and corn imported from the United States which has introduced Bt genes in these crops. Some of these fears are unfounded,” he emphasised.
According to former CSIR Director General RA Mhashelkar, “In areas of genetic engineering, a principle of precaution is understandable but at the same time, it has to be promotional as well. We cannot stop the juggernaut of technology.”
One can smell and read politics on this issue too. There is a story going the round that people not favourably inclined towards Maharashtra are opposing the introduction of Bt brinjal because it is being developed by Mahyco, a Government of Maharashtra-supported organisation, in association with the US multinational seed giant Monsanto. The Tribune of February 8, 2010, carried a long interview by Dr Gurudev Singh Khush, an agricultural scientist in the field for 35 years, who has developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines hundreds of varieties of rice. In an interview to KS Chawla, he said, in reply to a question on Bt brinjal: “Bt technology does not cause any harm. It helps in reducing the cost of production and the use of insecticides and pesticides. That does not cause any harm to the environment. Rather it cleans the environment. Bt brinjal is not at all harmful and it can help in increasing production. It will not contain high percentage of residues of insecticides, harmful for health.”
It is true that Bt brinjal has not won the support of Dr MS Swaminathan, the foremost agricultural scientist of India and often called the father of the Green Revolution. He told The Hindu on February 9 that it was appropriate not to hurry and to look at the problems to the satisfaction of all. But one must add here that what the Minister Jairam Ramesh described as public hearing, several genuine scientists and groups in favour of Bt brinjal were not even allowed to speak.
By Arabinda Ghose