Genetically Modified crops and Indian agriculture
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 07 Jan 2015 6 Comments

On December 4, 2014, Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar, made a startling statement in the Rajya Sabha: “There is no scientific evidence to prove that genetically modified crops harm the soil, human health and the environment”. This statement was made apropos the controversial decision of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) granting approval for open field trials of 12 GM crops. Nothing can be further from the scientific truth. This brief article hopes to educate readers about the dangers of Genetically Modified (GM) crops, in particular Bt brinjal which has now been approved for open field trails.


In 2009, responding to large-scale opposition to the introduction of Bt brinjal in India, former environment  minister  Jairam Ramesh put in place an indefinite moratorium to its further field testing. This was done after his wide interaction with scientists, both pro and anti-GM crops, activists and farmers across the country. The dominant opinion was anti Bt brinjal. His successor, Jayanthi Natarajan, shared the same opinion, but not Sharad Pawar, the then Union Agriculture Minister in UPA-II; nor did the Prime Minister’s Office.


Mrs Natarajan was quietly eased out of office and her successor Veerappa Moily gave the green signal for field testing not just Bt brinjal, but the entire spectrum of GM crops, with unbridled haste. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was then in the opposition, raised much noise opposing GM crops and its election manifesto reflected this opposition. This author was assured by some very knowledgeable quarters in New Delhi that BJP was one hundred per cent opposed to GM crops, and its election manifesto would carry this assurance. This was prior to the election.


With hindsight, perhaps the assurance was given with good intentions, because those in the know of things knew how opposed this author is to this half-baked technology. It was due to his relentless campaign that today Kerala State is “GM Free”. This  author has been consistently opposing the cultivation of GM crops on Indian soil since 2003, when the first GM cotton, evolved by Monsanto, was, with covert support from some entrenched and “leading” agricultural scientists known for their treacherous covert manoeuvrings and who are out to sell Indian agriculture to the West, given GEAC approval.


This author was the first Indian agricultural scientist who warned in 2003 the hidden dangers of GM cotton; the warnings have now come true. It is revealing that one of the foremost in this “leading” scientists’ group, facilitated Monsanto sharing the 2013 World Food Prize, because he was Chairman of the selection committee! Everything was managed secretly in Washington!!!


Now, the BJP in power has taken a complete U-turn and given permission to field test both Bt brinjal and Bt mustard. What is at stake in this decision for Indians?  


I wish to dwell on an important legal aspect to the entire question of the advisability of India going in for GM crops vis-à-vis Bt brinjal. In 2006, responding to a PIL on GM crops in the Supreme Court, the then Chief Justice of India, Justice YK Sabharval, observed that the entire question of the GM crops should be examined by competent and independent scientists. In pursuance of this observation, an Independent Expert Committee was constituted consisting of some leading agronomists, soil scientists, plant physiologists, nutritionists, economists, social activists and farmers’ representatives, to specifically examine the field data pertaining to Bt brinjal provided by an Indian seed company, a subsidiary of a US-based agribusiness behemoth. The author had the privilege to be Chairman of the Expert Committee. 


Noting that the seed company had blatantly violated many safety protocols prescribed by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, in both laboratory and field testing, including response in feed trials in test animals in the laboratory, the Committee in its report to the Supreme Court recommended  stoppage of further field testing, until foolproof safety protocols  were put in place. 


In 2013, the Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) ordered that no field testing of GM crops be carried until foolproof safety provisions were in place. A single member of TEC, a former Director General of ICAR, dissented, and a clear “conflict of interest” has been voiced by members of the TEC, including many scientists opposed to GM crops.  It is important to note that the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC), constituted on the observations of the Supreme Court, prior to the recommendations of the TEC, also recommended total moratorium on open field testing of GM crops, until totally foolproof bio-safety protocol was place. All of this seems to have thrown to the winds by the current government. The million dollar question is, at whose prodding?


Core scientific stipulations


Two crucial facts have to be clearly understood. First and foremost, brinjal is a food crop, and any tampering with its genetic make-up must not be attempted unless and until a totally foolproof safety protocol is in place, which is not the case, as of now. Unlike Bt cotton, where mishandling of the RNA-mediated genetic change could lead to Bt toxin percolating into human gut through milk from cows fed with cotton cake obtained from Bt cotton, brinjal is a food crop of direct consumption and any mishandling can lead to disastrous consequences.


Second, brinjal has its origin in the Indian subcontinent, and it is mandatory that no genetic manipulation of a crop, much less an edible one, be attempted in its geographic place of origin. Sadly, both these core stipulations have been violated in the production of Bt brinjal.


It would be educative to take the example of Mexico in the American backyard. Despite tremendous pressure, overt and covert, politically and scientifically, to introduce GM maize in Mexico, this small country successfully continued its staunch opposition to GM maize because the Andean region in Mexico is the place of origin of maize. New Delhi is blatantly violating this basic and very important norm in the case of Bt brinjal. One does not know if Prime Minister Modi, a hardcore nationalist, realises the grave inherent danger in the decision of the Environment Minister.


Situation in Bangladesh


The Government of Bangladesh released Bt brinjal on October 30, 2013. Though a High Court had ordered stay on September 29, it was overruled by the Supreme Court on October 2. The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) had endorsed the crop, despite strong opposition from farmers’ groups and the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers’ Association (BELA) in Dhaka.


While a few farmers reported fairly good yields, many others said that entire Bt brinjal fields had wilted ahead of time, something akin to what happened in Bt cotton in India. Despite both the Government’s and BARI’s support to Bt brinjal, opposition to it is gathering strength. The Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan, denouncing Bt brinjal, is at the forefront of this opposition.


A leading farmer has clearly said that Bt brinjal is no silver bullet, primarily meant to contain the fruit and stem borer (FSB) insect that does the maximum damage to the crop. Many farmers have reported that Bt brinjal still needs the insecticidal sprays to contain FSB, an observation made in India about Bt cotton in containing the dreaded American Boll Worm. Despite the Government’s push to Bt brinjal, the debate over South Asia’s first commercially released genetically modified  food crop is unlikely to die down any time soon, and this will greatly harm brinjal farmers’ welfare.


India must remain vigilant


India has to be very vigilant on two counts, first to seal in a fully foolproof manner any cross-border illegal trade in Bt brinjal seeds. When the Indian Government has failed to effectively seal the migration of illegal Bangladeshi refugees into West Bengal, sealing the cross-border against illegal sale in Bt brinjal seeds is nothing but wishful thinking. The larger question is, would India want to risk its large collection of native brinjal varieties to pollen contamination from Bt brinjal, and make everything uniform?


Go to the countryside and see an array of brinjal fruits, starting from the delicious mouth-watering and eye-catching “Gulle Badnekai” (round brinjal) from Karnataka to the slender and long “Kathirikkai” of Tamil Nadu, both incomparable ingredients in the famous south Indian sambar that has titillated the palate from Madras to Manchester. Whether Kathikkai sambar or baingon ka bartha, brinjal is our national vegetable and any genetic tampering must be done only with extreme care. But, the most worrying question is, incompetent handling of the messenger RNA-induced changes in the brinjal cell could unwittingly let the Bt toxin into the human gut. Would you want it? 


Footnote: On Nov 10, 2014 the European Parliament decided not to interfere with European Union member nations on the question of cultivating GM crops. It will be the individual nations’ decision. Europe has consistently opposed the cultivation of GM crops and this is a victory for those opposed to the half-baked GM technology. 

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