Ignoring the earlier moratorium and strong objections of states, especially Kerala and West Bengal, efforts are on to bring back Bt brinjal. If these efforts succeed, Bt brinjal could become the first ever GM or genetically modified food crop to be introduced in India. This would open the floodgates for other GM food crops to be sown in India, which some very influential and resourceful multinational companies are extremely keen on, even if it means spending vast amounts of money to get there.
While it is being said that indigenous Bt brinjal varieties are being promoted this time, it needs to be clearly understood that GM technology is globally controlled by a handful of multinational companies and their associates and subsidiaries. Hence, the emphasis on “indigenous” GM varieties is just a veneer of localisation which in fact will permit GM food varieties controlled by multinational companies to arrive in India in future.
Here it needs to be recalled that on 9 February 2010, the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests had announced a moratorium on Bt brinjal on grounds of health, environment and safety, which was widely welcomed in India and the world. The environment minister at the time, Jairam Ramesh, had released a note citing reasons for the moratorium: “All states which have written to me have expressed apprehension on Bt brinjal and have called for extreme caution because this is extremely important in our federal framework and agriculture is a state subject,” the note said.
The strongest opposition to Bt brinjal came from the government of Kerala, which had decided to “prohibit all environmental release of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and keep the state totally GM free.” It had requested the then prime minister to declare a 50-year national moratorium on GM crops. This opposition of state governments is very important because of the threat of genetic pollution from GMOs, that is, its spread to non-GM crops. The Environment Ministry had acknowledged this threat in the specific context of Bt brinjal when it announced the moratorium: “The fact that brinjal is very largely a cross-pollinated crop according to the generally accepted scientific consensus makes the threat of contamination with the use of Bt brinjal on other varieties a particularly worrisome issue.”
India is the world’s largest producer of brinjal, and the country of origin of brinjal. The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research had informed the ministry of environment in 2010 that there are 3,951 collections in the Bureau and that there are 134 diversity-rich districts, which are “likely to be affected” by the introduction of Bt brinjal. “The loss of diversity argument cannot be glossed over especially when seen in light of the experience we have had in cotton where Bt cotton seed has overtaken non-Bt seeds,” Ramesh’s note had said.
Bt brinjal drew immense flak from scientists outside India as well. The minister had cited the award-winning Prof David Schubert of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, USA, who had strongly recommended that Bt brinjal should not be introduced in India due to serious environment and health risks. He had said that GMO would increase social and political dependence on private companies and raise costs of growing and consuming food. The expert advice the Indian government got at the time from doctors and medical experts included that of the Doctors for Food and Safety, a network of around 100 doctors from across India who drew attention to the fact that GM foods have not been properly tested for human consumption and pose serious health risks.
In fact GMOs had got so much negative feedback that the government had declared that there was “no clear consensus within the scientific community itself” on it and “so much opposition from the state governments” that it made no sense to introduce it. Even civil society organisations and eminent scientists “raised many serious questions that have not been answered satisfactorily”, the government had admitted. This is not to mention the negative public sentiment about GMO and Bt brinjal. Finally the environment ministry decided that India should adopt a “cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal, till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country.”
At the time, India was to be the very first country to introduce a genetically-modified vegetable, although there was urgency for it. But has the situation changed, and is there now a consensus on introducing Bt brinjal in India? It would seem not. Recently, Kavitha Kuruganti, who is associated with the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture wrote, “Bt brinjal is sought to be made into a Trojan horse by biotech promoters and proponents, for an easier entry of various GM seeds and such technologies into India’s food and farms sector.” Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, has highlighted how the need for Bt brinjal has never been established in India. He notes that Bt brinjal was promoted by powerful firms in the USA but serious protocol violations, environmental contamination concerns and potential adverse health impacts were also discovered.
Farida Akhter, one of the strongest voices against introduction of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, has described how it was imposed on the country, which already had 248 varieties of brinjal and therefore no need for a GMO variety. Akhter has said that poor quality of brinjal and financial losses for farmers have become major issues. In Bangladesh, Akhter has pointed out, many farmers have abandoned Bt brinjal, but farmers are also being provided incentives to cultivate Bt brinjal, and where they have done so, fertiliser use has increased and there have been many pest attacks, leading to use of many different types of pesticides.
Recall that in India, when Bt brinjal was being hotly debated, Dr. Pushpa M Bhargava, the former vice chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, who was nominated by the Supreme Court of India in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to protect safety concerns, had explained how Indian farmers would suffer if GM crops are allowed. “Eighty four percent of our farmer community consists of small or marginal farmers with a holding of less than four hectares land. According to Monsanto data, Bt brinjal pollen can travel for 30 metres and could thus easily contaminate the neighbouring non-Bt brinjal field. In course of time, we would be left with no non-Bt yield even if the farmers do not want the transgenic crop.” He had also highlighted that unlike Europe, and other parts of the world, India has no labelling laws. “In these countries, any food product which has more than 0.9 per cent of GM material must be labelled as genetically modified item. Therefore, we would neither be able to export our vegetables stock nor exercise choice with regard to GM brinjal or a non-GM brinjal.” Besides, he was right to state that there is an ever-growing demand across the world for organic foods, which fetch farmers better prices. This market would be lost if GMOs enter the country.
In a review of the disturbing trends in farming, Bhargava had written that GMO introduction in India was an attempt by a “small but powerful minority” to serve their own interests and “those of multinational corporations (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political setup and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools.” Further he had warned, “With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector.”
The Bt brinjal controversy is not just an issue for India but part of a much wider debate on GM crops. An eminent group of scientists from various countries who constitute the Independent Science Panel have concluded after examining all aspects of GM crops that they “failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm”, especially genetic contamination, and hence there can be “no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture”. Most important of all, these scientists have said that “sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment.”
Another group of 17 distinguished scientists from Europe, the United States, Canada and New Zealand has said in a report that GMOs can disrupt genetic structures and functions of host plants, which can lead to “novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutrition quality.” Certainly, no assurance on safety of Bt brinjal has been available since the imposition of moratorium in India in 2010 but efforts have begun to introduce Bt brinjal again. Why?
The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements. The views are personal.