Playing with fire in Orissa's farmland
2.Coming to the vegetable shop: genetically modified brinjals
EXTRACTS: ...the Orissa University for Agriculture and Technology (OUAT) is set to start testing oa GM food crop, the controversial Bt eggplant or brinjal.
This has provoked widespread protests across Orissa because the state's rich biodiversity boasts close to 200 varieties of eggplants.
There is no way that it can prevent contamination from GM varieties through gene flow when over 80 per cent of its farmers are marginal cultivators with holdings that are less than two hectares.
Surely, Orissa understands that it cannot resolve the paradox of promoting organic cultivation while playing footsie with genetically engineered crops? (item 1)
1.Playing with fire in Orissa's farmland
Business Standard, 13 November 2008
New Delhi - The unchecked spread of illegal Bt cotton cultivation is a serious threat to the state's agriculture, warns Latha Jishnu
Orissa’s farmlands have become the battleground for several conflicting interests. There is the familiar battle over what should be grown ”” traditional food grains versus the more rewarding cash crops ”” but the more insidious battle is being waged over how the crops should be grown and what technology should be used. Cotton is the focus of this largely covert operation to wean farmers on a genetically modified (GM) regimen in a state which maintains that it intends to remain GM-free.
Over the past five years there have been significant shifts in the agricultural landscape of Orissa which has taken rather enthusiastically to cotton cultivation. From less than 30,000 hectares in 2002-03, the area under cotton has expanded to over 63,000 hectares in 2007-2008. By the end of the 11th Plan, the state intends to double this figure, according to a paper prepared by the department of agriculture. But the extraordinary aspect of Orissa's growing appetite for cotton is that almost the entire crop is being grown under contract, either for mills, traders or in small measure for research institutes. Farm experts say this is an unusual phenomenon.
The figures revealed by the department are eye-popping. In response to a right to information (RTI) petition filed by a voluntary organisation, it disclosed that 58,255 farmers were contracted by 15 companies to grow cotton on 60,371 hectares during 2007-08. That's a cool 95 per cent of the total area under cotton but a chunk of this is devoted to growing organic cotton which is turning into a money-spinner. The concern, and a serious worry, is that a substantial number of the farmers are using illegal GM seeds to cultivate cotton. The seeds, according to sources in Orissa, are supplied either by the contracting company or bought by the farmers themselves. Officials have turned a blind eye to this by claiming they are helpless in the matter although there have been reports of several seizures of GM seeds by the police. Little is being done to check this proliferation or to warn farmers about the hazards of Bt cotton. Field visits by agriculture experts have shown that farmers have
been instructed in biosafety protocols and have completely ignored the mandatory regulations.
The irony is that Orissa has been proclaiming rather loudly that it is against GM crops. Not only has the agriculture minister stated on the floor of the assembly that he would not allow GM crops into the state but the chief minister himself has issued a memo that GM crops should be discouraged in the state. To make its stand very clear, the directorate of agriculture and food production issued a notice in August this year declaring that the cultivation of Bt cotton was illegal. All of this begs the question why no punitive action is being taken against the companies and farmers who are contravening the law. In parts of Bolangir district, a major hotspot for cultivation of GM cotton, the authorities say they have conducted raids but were unsuccessful in unearthing illegal seeds.
Talking to this newspaper, U P Singh, agriculture commissioner and secretary to the Orissa government, sidestepped the issue by saying it was "mostly under contract farming". Orissa’s policy, he insists, is to disallow GM crops because of the environmental and health hazards they pose. There was no case for adopting Bt cotton since the state was keen on pushing organic cotton to tap into a growing market. His contention: why go for expensive Bt cotton when you can exploit a profitable niche market (organic cotton)?
But whatever officials may say, Orissa is known to have been a hotbed of GM testing for companies producing Bt cotton since 2002 ”” and that, too, without clearance from the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), the regulator. Activist Debjeet Sarangi, founder of Living Farms which campaigns for organic farming, says almost all the brands of Bt cotton seeds are available in Rayagada and Bolangir. He believes it is part of a tested strategy ”” Gujarat was the testing ground in the early 2000s ”” by companies to capture the market. The ploy is simple: Release GM seeds clandestinely and then seek to make it legal by saying it is already widespread and farmers are demanding it.
But the lax regulation and enforcement underline a deeper worry for Orissa which has become the third largest grower of organic cotton in the country. The lack of a specific liability regime for GM organisms means that the state, like the rest of the country, can make no claims on companies supplying GM seeds in the case of environmental damage. Experts say the potential extent of the harm and its timeline are a matter of uncertainty at this point although evidence is coming in of the ill-effects of GM crops on the human system. For this backward state, there is the potential impact of contamination of other crops. There have been several instances where countries have barred imports of agricultural products contaminated with GMOs.
Sarangi says RTI petitions have revealed that extensive field testing of Bt cotton varieties has been underway in Orissa since 2004 are not being discontinued despite the state's declared intention of barring GMOs. A proposal for the field trial of Bt Cotton in Bhawanipatna for the current year has been accepted and the Orissa University for Agriculture and Technology (OUAT) is set to start testing of a GM food crop, the controversial Bt eggplant or brinjal.
This has provoked widespread protests across Orissa because the state's rich biodiversity boasts close to 200 varieties of eggplants. There is no way that it can prevent contamination from GM varieties through gene flow when over 80 per cent of its farmers are marginal cultivators with holdings that are less than two hectares. Surely, Orissa understands that it cannot resolve the paradox of promoting organic cultivation while playing footsie with genetically engineered crops?
2.Coming to the vegetable shop: genetically modified brinjals
IANS, November 13 2008
New Delhi(IANS)- Within the next one year, the Indian market may open its doors to Bt brinjal, a genetically modified (GM) version of the common vegetable. While government officials claim the crop won’t be released without adequate safety assurance, campaigners and civil society organisations here feel the safety precautions are unreliable.India is one of the six top countries for cultivation of GM crops. Now the Bt brinjals are in the final stages of approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a government body.
“All the tests for GM crops in India are conducted under controlled supervision. The Bt brinjal has a long line of clearance and approval from various departments - if we are convinced by the tests that will be reviewed later this month, it may be introduced in a year’s time,” GEAC Director B.S. Parashera told IANS.
The committee assesses environmental safety of a GM product over a six-year period, he explained.
That has failed to reassure activists against GM crops, especially food crops.
“Studies from across the globe have shown that GM food caused a series of health problems including stunted growth, infertility, impaired immune system and organ damage that can be carried over generations,” said Mira Shiva, member of the All India Drug Action Network and of the Initiative for Health, Equity and Society.
She denounced GM foods going commercial and said: “Bio-safety norms are given the lowest priority in India. Then there are regulatory gaps.”
After Bt brinjal, there are 25 kinds of rice, 23 kinds of tomatoes, many types of groundnut, pigeon peas, potato, mustard, sugarcane, soy and okra awaiting GEAC approval.
“Even after two years of field trials of GM crops, no regulatory body has any evidence on bio-safety of GM okra, rice and mustard,” Mira Shiva charged.
All these GM crops were in the testing stage and “will require approval from GEAC, then the ministry for agriculture, before they can be commercialised for mass-scale production,” Parashera assured. GEAC works under the environment ministry.
Explaining what exactly happens when crops are genetically modified, the GEAC chief said: “In GM foods, the seeds are made with genetic enhancement to become resistant to pests and bugs - we work in this area to solve the bigger problems - reduce use of chemical pesticides and fertiliser for environment-friendly options. We also make seeds available at affordable prices to farmers.”
But a recent report by international NGO Greenpeace - called “Genetic Gamble - Safe food the end of choice?” - says there is still no evidence that GM food is safe, though the budget for genetically engineered food research has increased by 250 percent since 2005.
“In all likelihood Bt brinjal will be launched with no label and we and our families will have no choice but to become lab rats in this grand genetic experiment,” Greenpeace campaigner Jai Krishna told IANS.
Rajesh Krishnan, who helped compile the Greenpeace report, said: “If launched in the Indian markets, these Bt brinjals could spell disaster. The results of the tests carried out by the government must be made available for public scrutiny.”
Some data was available online, said Parashera, but “certain data that the developer wants to keep confidential in research and development stages must be kept so. However, if there is an unreasonable request from the firm that is likely to affect public health, we will overrule the firm.”
Krishnan charged that Bt brinjal developer firm Monsanto outsourced its testing to a Pune firm “that is not even accredited by the Indian government” to carry out the testing. Monsanto controls about 80 percent of the global GM crop trade.
“On the basis of such research a potentially harmful product will be commercialised,” Krishnan said.
Parashera refuted the charge and maintained that all testing was under direct supervision of the committee with consultation from independent researchers. He also said that in case a crop is released in the market “the packaging of the seeds will mention that it’s genetically treated, and the farmers will have the choice of rejecting it.”
Aruna Roy, who spearheaded the Right to Information (RTI) campaign in India, criticized the hush hush approach to commercialisation of GM crops in India, saying it “hindered the right of consumers to make an informed choice”.
Roy told IANS: “In the days to come GM food is likely to be pushed as a solution to solve the global food crisis, but lives can be potentially damaged by something being carried out behind closed doors; where the public has no access because corporates cite patent issues.”
Pareshera agreed that Bt brinjal might not be physically distinguishable to the consumer at the vegetable retailer’s shop, a thought at which Roy shuddered.
“Our sovereignty cannot be bargained away in secret pacts with developed countries,” she said. “We need to see the facts and the public organisations must be accountable for it. For example, if a gene from a scorpion is being used to enhance food, I as a consumer need to know before I choose to eat it.”
Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, all countries in the European Union and many in Africa have either banned the entry of GM foods or have imposed strict restrictions on their commercial use.