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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 09, Dated March 06, 2010
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
cover story

The Gene Gun At Your Head

imageHOW CAN A LOWLY VEGETABLE BE AN ISSUE OF NATIONAL SECURITY? IS THERE A FOREIGN HAND IN YOUR BELLY? SHOMA CHAUDHURY LAYS BARE THE COMPLEX STORY OF Bt BRINJAL AND HOW IT AFFECTS YOU

 

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Illustration: ANAND NAOREM

IMAGINE THE lowly brinjal you have always known turning into a sci-fi gizmo — with an uncharted potency for good and evil. Imagine a food turned into a pesticide — and you will have a measure of the essential uncertainty around Bt brinjal.

When Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced his indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal on February 9, he halted a juggernaut that could have swept India to a point of no return. His decision has earned everyone a precious window of pause — a time to reevaluate, reconsider, retest. Most of all, time first for everyone to familiarise themselves with what is at stake.

Conversations about science and agriculture are usually conducted outside public discourse. Most urban Indians, in fact, consider talk of farmers and vegetables a bore. If someone told you Bt brinjal is an issue of national security, chances are you’d laugh. But it is true. There are also people who speak of desi brinjal as a sort of modern day Mangal Pandey and the struggle to protect it a kind of 21st century Indian War of Independence. While this might seem hyperbole, it helps establish the scale of what is involved in the Bt brinjal debate in India. That debate, in fact, extends into every aspect of our lives: our personal health, our environment, our food prices, our bioheritage, our economic security, our national sovereignty. Our entire future. To not be aware and involved is to sign up as the proverbial lab rat.

DID YOU KNOW?

WHAT IS Bt BRINJAL?
Bt brinjal is a geneticallymodified variety of brinjal into which a gene from a bacteria has been inserted, allowing it to produce a toxin harmful to pests

WHAT’S THE BIG FUSS?
The toxin may be poisonous not just to pests, but to anything that eats it. Unknown ecological consequences may threaten native varieties of the vegetable. It may also hand the reigns of Indian agriculture over to a handful of multinational compaines

ARE THOSE AGAINST Bt ANTI-SCIENCE?
GM opponents include many genetic engineering specialists — some of whom pioneered the technology. Their concerns lie in what they claim is a callous attitude that brushes aside health, environmental and economic issues

WILL I GET CANCER IF I EAT GM FOOD?
We don't know. Unintended effects of Bt brinjal include processes that can catalyse cancer. The bio-safety report on which the government based its approval has been widely panned by top international scientists

The need to expand public involvement in this debate has become more urgent because, though Jairam Ramesh called his moratorium “indefinite”, the window of time he earned might be slammed shut sooner than he or anyone else imagined. Since his announcement, sections of the media and political establishment have been running a dogged campaign to isolate him and whisk the debate away from what they call “public noise” into the inscrutable world of pure science — a euphemism for single-window clearances. When Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan told the Indian Express, “Slogan shouting and protests should not cloud scientific vision in the country,” he could have been mouthing the thwarted exasperation of the entire pro-Bt lobby.

Just a cursory glance at the monetary stakes involved would explain some of the frustration. As the 8th largest seed market in the world, India has a $ 1 billion per year seed industry, currently occupied by the unorganised and public sector — waiting to be corporatised. According to a Business Standard report, the corporate seed industry is growing at 15 percent annually; and 85 percent of India’s seed market still remains to be penetrated. Just the Bt cotton seed industry accounts for Rs 2,000 crore annually. Bt brinjal was only the outrider. Ranged behind it is an army of Bt crops waiting for the regulatory drawbridge to be lifted: rice, tomato, potato, wheat, okra. The list runs to 41. One billion Indian stomachs to be corporatised and Jairam Ramesh had put a spoke in it. Industry could not have been happy.

In this session of Parliament, the Department of Biotechnology — which comes under the science ministry and whose stated objective is to promote GM crops and so has an inherent conflict of interest — will be putting up an ominous piece of legislation: the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill 2009 (NBRAI, 2009). This draft Bill, which is still marked “secret”, is full of undemocratic and draconian clauses. First, it proposes to take away power from the current, flawed but broad-based committee under the environment ministry and hand approval of GM crops over to a committee of three technical experts under the science ministry — not only making them vulnerable to manipulation, but turning an ethical, environmental, economic and health issue into a purely technological one.

PRITHVIRAJ CHAVAN'S
letter to the health minister allaying public fears over Bt brinjal was later found to be excerpted from the biotech industry’s promotional materials

THE BOLLWORM
that plagued cotton has not disappeared. Bt cotton was supposed to eliminate it, but they seem to have become resistant. This defeats the claim that Bt reduces pesticide use

Not just this, instead of enhancing transparency and information disclosure, the NBRAI seeks to protect corporates with legal cover for retaining Confidential Commercial Information. (It is revealing that Greenpeace had to fight a 30-month RTI battle with the Department of Biotechnology to release the Bt brinjal bio-safety dossier submitted by Mahyco, the company that has developed the crop in India in conjunction with American seed giant, Monsanto. The department claimed sharing the dossier would compromise Mahyco’s commercial interests! It was finally made public by a Supreme Court order.)

The bill also turns the federal nature of India on its head and proposes to take away the constitutional authority state governments have over agriculture and health and give the technical committee overriding power. (The fact that 10 state governments across political parties refused to allow the entry of Bt brinjal might cast light on this clause.) Apart from many other disturbing provisions ( see box: Wrong Bill for Wrong Reasons), most shockingly, Section 63 of the NBRAI Bill proposes imprisonment and fine for anyone who “without evidence or scientific record misleads the public about safety of GM crops”. That could put all activists and journalists in jail for merely asking questions.

imageThe technical review had little scientific rigour, no credible methodology, no objective analysis

DR S PARASURAMAN, Director, TISS, Mumbai

Why this desperation to bulldoze Bt crops onto India? If these crops are for the public good, why this fear of debate? Why this need to muzzle? Why this hesitation to convince? Before one probes these questions about Bt brinjal, at a much more elemental level, if the pro-Bt lobby succeeds in yanking this debate away from the public domain, nothing would be more disastrous for the country. Whether one agrees with him or not, the way in which Jairam Ramesh went about making his decision on Bt brinjal can only be applauded as a high note for Indian democracy. Knowing the many issues riding on it, when the committee currently empowered to approve GM crops — the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) — cleared it for commercial release on October 14, 2009, he uploaded the report on his ministry website and invited independent feedback till December 31, 2009. Following this, in an unprecedented move, he consulted over 8,000 people (scientists, agriculture experts, farmers’ organisations, consumer groups and NGOs) — “public noise” — through seven public consultations across the country. Finally, on February 9, 2010, soon after he announced his moratorium, in a superbly transparent and well-written document, he tabulated all the reasons for his decision and uploaded it on the ministry website, along with all the feedback he had received, for public scrutiny.

THE WAY JAIRAM RAMESH HELD PUBLIC MEETINGS TO DEBATE Bt BRINJAL IS A HIGH NOTE FOR DEMOCRACY

But for this transparency, the cloudy story of Bt brinjal would never have come to light. Dr S Parasuraman, director of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, was part of the original expert committee (EC 1) set up to evaluate Bt brinjal, as well as part of a special Technical Review Committee. When EC 1 was disbanded and EC 2 was set up, he was not invited to be on it. Given his experience with EC 1, he says it was only to be expected.

Bt BRINJAL will be one of the first geneticallymodified food crops in the world to be directly ingested, instead of being processed or fed to cattle

INDIA IS the land of origin of the brinjal, with over 2,400 varieties. It is even used in ayurveda and unani medicine. With an annual yield of 8 million tonnes, there is no crisis in production

His account is just the tip. “I was constantly surprised at the way meetings of the Technical Review Committee were conducted,” says he. “Our job was to read all the reports produced by Mahyco and the institutions associated with them. I read through 5,000 pages of documents and produced my own report in response. As far as I know, I was the only one to put my observations down in writing. I was appalled at the lack of scientific rigour in these reports. There was no credible methodology, no objective analysis; 99 percent of the reports produced from various institutes were the result of research programmes funded by Mahyco. There was no independent thought or inquiry informing the research. At every meeting, there was a level of complacency the scientists brought in — almost as if they had not grasped the consequences of the introduction of a Bt food crop. Giving approval was their moot point.”

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LIFE OR DEATH To risk, or not to risk? That is the key debate in allowing Bt brinjal
Photo: SHAILENDRA PANDEY

Parasuraman’s statements as an insider echo the highly disturbing findings of a group of eminent Indians and 18 international scientists. On February 8, they wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress head Sonia Gandhi to draw attention to a letter written by Prithviraj Chavan in July 2009, while he was a Minister of State in the prime minister’s office, in response to a letter from then Health Minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, addressed directly to the PM in February 2009.

imageWhen a food like Bt brinjal is introduced, the regulatory mechanism has to be above suspicion

ABHIJIT SEN, Member, Planning Commission

In his letter to the PM, Ramadoss had raised questions about the potential health impact of GM foods. Chavan’s reply — written almost five months later — assured Ramadoss that “the various issues raised in your letter have been examined carefully and by applying the best scientific evidence available today”. However, in an exposé that has far-reaching implications — and pretty much sums up the problem with the GM food debate — these civil society members and international scientists have now revealed that much of Chavan’s letter was excerpted directly from promotional materials of the agricultural biotechnology industry, in particular the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) — “an organisation that at best can be described as pseudo-scientific, funded primarily by Monsanto and other biotechnology multinational companies and whose purpose is to promote and facilitate the commercial introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in the developing world.”

FOR THIRTY years consumers were persuaded to use transfats like Dalda. Now we are told it’s highly toxic for the heart. Sure enough, heart attacks are visibly more prevalent in India

LABELLING Bt brinjal in order to distinguish it from ordinary brinjal is a near-impossible logistical exercise in India

These scientists then go on to rebut Chavan’s claims paragraph by paragraph, citing authoritative references, hoping to “bring out the true facts of GM crops” to enable an informed discussion on their “unique risks to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible.” Finally, they urge the prime minister, “for the sake of the safety of the Indian people, and the welfare of Indian farmers, to readdress the official position on GM crops.” (Read full text)

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 09, Dated March 06, 2010
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