Bt cotton had no significant benefits for the farmers: Report
A Parliamentary committee report highlights the gaps in the regulatory mechanism for GM crops in India
By Neha Saigal
The voices of opposition to Genetically Modified (GM) crops worldwide reflected in India since the approvals for field trials of Bt cotton were given by the regulatory system in the late 1990s. They only grew louder and more prominent when the regulatory body in India, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) took the unthoughtful decision to commercialise Bt brinjal. These voices were not just of the usual suspects – the civil society – but those of farmers, scientists and politicians. Apart from the democratic decision taken by the then Minister of Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh, to place a moratorium on Bt brinjal, this opposition also caught the attention of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture to take up an in-depth analysis on the controversies surrounding the cultivation of transgenic crops in India.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee and the GM Debate
It took the Committee two and a half years, and a flawless process of intensive interactions with various stakeholders ranging from representatives of central government departments, state governments, farmer unions and individual farmers, civil society organisations, scientists and seed industry. The result is a comprehensive and exhaustive report titled “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops - Prospects and Effects.”
The report which was produced by the committee headed by Basudev Acharia of CPM, is historic in a way as it was adopted unanimously by all the 31 members, cutting across party lines. This also includes 11 MPs from the ruling party, Indian National Congress. The report has tried to cover almost all aspects of the GM debate happening in the country. It addresses the fundamental questions around GM crops including their impact on human health and environment and whether they play a role in ensuring food security and livelihood security for those involved in farming, especially the small and marginal farmer who form 85% of our farmers. It goes in-depth into the experiences with Bt cotton, the first and only GM crop approved in our country. Given the fact that there have been widespread complaints against the current regulatory system for GM crops, it has also analysed condition of our regulatory system to assess its robustness.
In the light of its widespread deliberations and on ground assessments, the report concludes that there have been no significant socio-economic benefits to the farmers from the introduction of Bt cotton but on the other hand it has extensively benefited the industry. It strongly recommends to re-look at the current regulatory system (GEAC) for GM crops, due to the inefficiency to regulate technology as risky as GMOs and the continued evidence of their nexus with the biotech seed industry. The report also validates many of the cases of field trial violations and contamination that Greenpeace and other civil society members have brought to light over the last 10 years and recommends that open field trials under any garb should not be permitted. It is to be noted that open air field trials of Monsanto’s GM maize are currently underway in Punjab and Haryana.
GM Regulation in India- A story of shame
While every recommendation by the Committee is ground breaking for the GM debate in India and possibly around the world, the thing that strikes me most and also should be a wakeup call for the government, is the serious gaps in the regulatory mechanism for GM crops in the country. The regulatory process is what will instil confidence in the people about any technology, especially one that is controversial as GM in food and farming. The report has evidently exposed the actions of the GEAC, which has failed in its mandate to ensure the safety of the environment, human health, food and feed of the country. The actions of the GEAC convey its strong inclination to benefit the industry, one of the instances that the committee points out to substantiate it is the inaction to the concerns raised on anti-biotic resistant genes put in GM crops, including Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, even after accepting that there is a risk in using them. This only goes to show that the GEAC behaves like a vendor for the Department of Biotechnology and the Biotechnology Industry and not a regulator who the public can trust.
Since the inadequacies in the GEAC lead current regulatory system were evident during the Bt brinjal debate, one would expect that the new regulatory mechanism that is proposed by the Union Government would take into account these flaws. But the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is much worse. The BRAI Bill that the Ministry of Science and Technology has been pushing since the last two years, among its many flaws, lacks an independent long-term bio safety testing, need assessment of products of modern biotechnology, transparency, public participation in decision making and deterrent liability mechanisms to prevent callous acts of the developers of such risky technologies. It basically acts as a single window clearance system that will lower the bar for GM crop approvals. It also fails to keep up the countries' commitment to international treaties like the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), Cartagena Protocol on Bio safety and the Nagoya Protocol which we are signatory to. This is also pointed out by the Committee, that while we are signatories to these conventions and treaties dealing with Genetically Modified Organisms, we do not have the necessary expertise, infrastructure to ensure our compliance. The Committee feels very strongly that the current BRAI proposals to regulate biotechnology is too small a focus in the vast canvas of biodiversity, environment, human and livestock health and other such related issues. They have therefore, recommended an all encompassing Bio-Safety Protection Authority instead.
Our GM regulation a cause of Embarrassment at CBD
The Committee report comes at a time when India will be hosting the Convention on Biological Diversity at Hyderabad in October 2012, this also happens to be the year of the 20th anniversary of Rio Earth Summit. An existing regulatory system which has been found wanting in intention and action and a proposed one which is lousier, puts India in a very unenviable position as a host country for a global convention which calls for utmost precaution while dealing with genetically modified organisms. It’s high time that the Indian Government gets its act together. The first step would be a democratic process consulting various stakeholders to shape up a bio safety protection act which will have the precautionary approach as its guiding principle.
Neha Saigal is a campaigner for sustainable agriculture with Greenpeace India.