A decade of valiant fight against GM crops
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 16 Aug 2012 15 Comments

On 9 August, when a 31-member Parliamentary Committee (inc. nine from Congress, six from BJP) unanimously decided to put a ban on field trials of genetically modified crops in India, the decision had both historic significance and scientific significance. It was on this day in 1942 that Gandhi gave the clarion call “Quit India” to the British in an open letter to the Viceroy and nudged Indians to “Do or Die”. The next day the British arrested Gandhi, his wife Kasturba and his personal secretary Mahadev Desai; the latter two died in prison.


By coincidence, it was  exactly on 9 August 2002 that this author first wrote an article entitled “Bt cotton – Bane or Boon”, which was published in a leading English daily of India. The article warned that genetically modified cotton would destroy Indian cotton farmers, and is not suited for Indian conditions. This was immediately taken up by the Berlin based “Coalition for the South”, translated into German, and published widely all over the world. Knowledgeable scientists across the world endorsed this view.


However, here in free India, a coterie of agricultural scientists with vested interests in the crop biotechnology sector, ganged up to gag this author. A media war (print and electronic) broke out, with one Rajya Sabha MP openly clamouring for Bt cotton; he openly ridiculed the author and totally marginalized him.


It is important to note that the ban recommended by the Parliamentary Committee came exactly a day after the Maharashtra Government cancelled Mahyco’s (Indian arm of Monsanto, the US based agri business giant) licence to sell its Bt cotton seeds. Behind this lies the valiant fight of this author and a few other committed scientists and social activists, who have focused on the maximum number of suicides in Vidarbha district of Maharashtra, where farmers after switching to Bt cotton from hybrids and desi varieties, found themselves bankrupt. They had no option but to take their lives to escape the Shylockian clutches of money lenders.  


In 2002, when Monsanto-Mahyco sold a packet of 450 grams of Bt cotton seed to Indian cotton farmers for a unheard of price of Rs 1950/packet, this author on a visit to China found that Monsanto was selling the same quantity of Bt cotton seed for just US $2/packet. Translated to Indian Rupee, the equivalence at the time worked out to less than Rs 100. The company made more than Rs 600 crores in one cotton crop season in 2002.


Tragically, no other agricultural scientist in India questioned this unheard of fleecing of Indian cotton farmers. Matters came to a head when in September 2006 Monsanto with its Indian subsidiary Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company) thrust the unscientifically tested Bt brinjal on poor, illiterate and unsuspecting farmers of Andhra, in Warangal district.


This author and a band of committed scientists and social activists moved the Supreme Court against this. The then Chief Justice Mr Sabharval, just before his retirement, observed that “The entire question of genetically modified crops should be examined by competent, knowledgeable scientists, who are also patriotic,” and following this observation by the CJI, an Independent Expert Committee was formed of which the author was unanimously elected Chairman. The committee consisted of some eminent and independent experts, agronomists, entomologists, economists, plant physiologists and farmers’ representatives.


The committee submitted its report to the Supreme Court on 15 October 2006, clearly indicting Monsanto and Mahyco for unscientifically conducted field trials, putting not only Indian agriculture to crisis, but poor and illiterate farmers to great risk and the unsuspecting Indian population to health risks.  Justice Sabharval was succeeded by Justice Balakrishanan as the Chief Justice of India. There followed endless foot dragging, until Jairam Ramesh, the then Environment and Forest Minister, took a pro-active role in inviting many stake holders on Bt brinjal to give their opinions. 


In an open letter to the minister published in The New Indian Express on 9 February 2010, this author pleaded for a moratorium on Bt brinjal. On 10 February, the very next day, the minister put a moratorium on Bt brinjal.


Meanwhile, another drama was being enacted in the Supreme Court to subvert the efforts of committed scientists and social activists. The Government of India nominated two scientists to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), later rechristened the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. The first was the reigning agricultural scientist of the country, with tremendous political clout, who was pulling strings behind the stage to promote GM crops; the second a person with absolutely no background in agriculture.


It was clearly a clever move to gag this author, as GEAC was vested with the supreme power for approval of all GM crops for field trials in India. The case for the author and his co-activists on GM crops was superbly and forcefully argued by noted Supreme Court Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan. Anyway, the proceedings went on without a definite conclusion, until Jairam Ramesh took the decision on moratorium on Bt brinjal.  


But truth always prevails, and now the Parliamentary Committee, after three years of looking into all relevant documents, has concluded that the field trials of GM crops should be totally banned, thus vindicating the stand taken by this author and his associates in the Supreme Court, and outside of it. We demanded a “thorough probe” into how permission was given to commercialise Bt brinjal seed when all evaluation tests were not properly carried out, as pointed in the Independent Expert Committee’s Report submitted to the Supreme Court in October 2006.  


The Independent Expert Committee criticised the role of the GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation. It is worth noting that at the height of the controversy surrounding Bt brinjal, the Minister of Science and Technology in the Government of India was putting pressure on GEAC, along with the biotechnology industry. It is also surprising that the minister of food, from Kerala, wrote an article in the leading regional daily Mathrubhumi, two years ago, openly pleading for Bt brinjal, and fully supporting GM crops!


It is for citizens to conclude from all this that the Government of India is clearly for GM crops. Clearly American pressure is operating intensely to promote GM crops in India, as it thinks it can capture the vast Indian market. The “Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture” (KIA) signed by Manmohan Singh and George Bush in November 2005, rolling out the red carpet for American crop biotechnologists on Indian soil (where during the official discussions representatives of Monsanto were present) is a clear pointer which way Government of India wants to go on GM technology, inasmuch as agriculture is concerned. In a subsequent visit, Hillary Clinton made an open plea in this regard in India. Even the Prime Minister’s statement on GM crops last year reflects this mindset. It is a shame on free India that the largest number of suicides of farmers occurred from areas where Bt cotton was used. The Parliamentary Committee report clearly noted “The farmers had no option but to use Bt cotton”. 


To rectify its mistakes, India must now ban all GM crops. A group of powerful unscrupulous scientists with the help of New Delhi is trying to pilot the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill (BRA). As per the provisions of this Bill, anyone opposing it can be fined, as much as Rs 50,000/-, and even imprisoned. This is draconian! It is a ruse to bring GM crops through the back door and must be opposed at any cost.


Indian agriculture is not similar to American or European agriculture. Our agriculture, where more than 70 per cent poor and marginal farmers are involved, is a “way of living”. Do we want to destroy this culture and bring in agri-business? The oft-repeated claim that “biotechnology is the panacea” for Indian agriculture, is rubbish. The idea is to control the seed industry and once the seed industry is controlled, the food supply chain is controlled. Even in the US, where Bt cotton originated, there is not a single instance where Bt cotton grew without the use of pesticides; this effectively negates all claims made by Monsanto.  


The author was Chairman, Independent Expert Committee, appointed to examine the role of Bt brinjal in India

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