The imbroglio over Genetically Modified crops
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 29 Apr 2014 3 Comments
On Tuesday, April 22, when the Supreme Court Justice HL Dattu put a pointed question to Solicitor General P Kuhad, “Why don’t you stay open field trials of GM crops”, it said more than meets the eye. It is important to remember that the apex court-appointed high powered six-member technical expert committee constituted to examine the entire question of GM crops’ field testing in India had unequivocally recommended an indefinite moratorium  on field testing of GM crops.


This was the considered opinion of five members of the panel; there was a dissenting note from the former Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Education, whose previous association with Monsanto cast the shadow of clash of interests over his views. The report said “It is apparent that there are major gaps in the regulatory system. These need to be addressed before issues related to tests can be meaningfully considered. Till such time, it would not be advisable to conduct more field trials”.   


It is important in this context to remind readers that two months ago, the Minister of Environment and Forests, Veerappa Moily, with the full endorsement and backing of Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, moved an affidavit to enable the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to lend its permission to the private players in seed production, primarily Monsanto-Mahyco combine, the major player, and other smaller ones, to conduct open field trials of GM crops, in particular, those of rice, wheat and maize.


More importantly, Jayanthi Natarajan, Moily’s predecessor, had strongly objected to the open field testing of GM crops until foolproof bio-safety norms are in place; she also wrote to the PMO, in vain, and was eased out of office subsequently, for “party (Congress) work”. Yet one has not seen her campaigning for the party. The unwritten message is clear – anyone creating roadblocks for the GM bandwagon in UPA will be eased out. Who is covertly calling the shots from behind on these sinister manoeuvres?  


It is worth noting that the 2013 World Food Prize was jointly given to Monsanto, the American giant agribusiness company much into seed business, in particular GM seeds, Sygenta (a European seed company also involved in GM crops, and a Belgian biotechnologist of yesteryear, who was this author’s colleague in the University of Ghent, Belgium, in a different department, way back in the 1960s).


The Chairman of the selection committee was an Indian agricultural scientist known for his deep pro-GM stance; the announcement was made in Washington. It drew worldwide protests from knowledgeable and concerned scientists, social activists, and farmers, who vehemently objected to the inclusion of Monsanto, in particular, among the World Food Prize winners.


Without being needlessly and erroneously passionate or emotive about the anti-GM call, it might be prudent to examine some crucial questions.


First and foremost is the issue of genetic contamination, due to pollen transfer, that can happen in a country like India, where in the fields of poor and marginal farmer several crops grow side by side, as any tour of the country side will show. Except in states like Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, the “green revolution belt”, or to some extent even in Andhra, where one would observe vast stretches of wheat or rice in rabi or kharif seasons, the farmers’ fields are strewn with many crops. Maize and beans grow together, so also sorghum and arhar (red gram). Our agriculture is not the type of monoculture as in USA, Canada or Europe. It is a “multi-storey” crop field.


In such a situation, genetic contamination due to pollen transfer is very easy. The Solicitor General argued that “confined field trials” can be conducted with a 200 metre “buffer zone”.  But which poor or marginal farmer can keep this “buffer zone” and waste so much land?


Once the pollen transfer takes place, and contamination occurs, the damage is done and there would be no going back. The environmental (genetic) contamination is irreversible. This author strongly suspects that a lot of genetic contamination has already taken place through Bt cotton. It will take years, perhaps decades, to see the real havoc. Such being the case, why is the Government in such a great hurry to conduct open field trials of GM crops, especially in food crops?


More importantly, why are not the protagonists of GM crops, be it seed producers or scientists, coming out strongly to say that there is a foolproof bio-safety protocol in place?

The personal experience of this author is one of total dismay in this regard. In 2006, when Monsanto-Mahyco brought out the first Bt brinjal for approval of the GEAC for commercial cultivation, the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Sabharval, observed that the entire question of the GM crops should be investigated by “ independent, expert, competent and committed scientists”. In response to this observation, the Centre For Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad constituted an Independent Expert Committee constituting, reputable nutritionists, agronomists, entomologists and economists, of which this author was unanimously chosen Chairman.


On detailed examination of the data provided by Mahyco, it was revealed that there were several instances of breach of safety protocol. The committee submitted its report to the Supreme Court in October 2006, and none knows, even to this day, the fate of the report. In retrospect, it is satisfying to note that the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh invoked an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010. The moratorium still stands.


There is a commercial angle to the entire question of GM crops. Barring Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, all other states are either undecided or have expressed objection to open field trials. Additionally, States like Kerala and Odisha have a governmental policy of being “GM Crops Free States”. And Ms Jayalalithaa, the strong lady of Tamil Nadu, is on record to have said “On no account will we allow GM crops in Tamil Nadu”. Such being the case, are there invisible and covert forces, in a great hurry, no matter what the long term effects on Indian agriculture, to bring GM crops to Indian farmers’ fields through the back door?  


India’s seed market is a very huge one, and any seed company capturing it will reap windfall profits. Our cotton farmers had to pay Rs 1950 for a packet of 500 grams of Bollgard-I in 2003, the first commercial GM Bt crop grown in India, and this author was amazed to see the same being sold at US$2 a packet in China during a visit there in 2004. At the time the US$ - Rupee parity was 1 US $ = + - Rs 50. The reader can imagine how Monsanto fleeced the gullible Indian cotton farmer!



The World Food Prize for Monsanto, the affidavit of the Environment Minister, the ardent support of the Agriculture Minister and some vested interests fronted by Indian scientists, all seem to fall in place when we look at the larger picture, which may not be clear to many. The larger hidden agenda of UPA and its treacherous scientific coterie is to hand over Indian agriculture to Monsanto, or more precisely to the Americans.


Many years ago, the then US President Richard Nixon said, “Those who control food in Asia will control its destiny”. What better way to control India than by controlling Indian agriculture? It happened in the early 1960s through the greatest treachery post Indian independence, called the green revolution, which is nothing but a “factory type” agriculture modelled along the lines of American agriculture, with disastrous environmental consequences, at the behest of the Americans, about which this author has written enough, including in these columns.  


The call for good governance and “India First” slogan of Narendra Modi will fall on its face if he is not wary of this impending disaster on the agricultural front. I am a very small man in this vast Bharat, and Shri Modi will hopefully be the leader of this great nation, in less than a month. I appeal to him, as a patriotic Indian, to be doubly cautious on this theme. My family and I very enthusiastically support his leadership, and, at the same time, hope and pray he is listening.

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