India's new GM crops bill is a gross example of corruption
PolicyMic, 25 November 2011
India’s agricultural future looks bleak as the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill 2011 is scheduled to pass in the current session of Indian parliament. This highly controversial bill calls for the formation of a new regulatory body that is the ultimate authority on the introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in India.
This body makes a mockery of both consumer protection as well as farmer rights, as it stipulates that the body will be made up of five members based within the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the very body that funds GM crop research in the country. To add to the irony, the DBT is also the main agency for channelling funds from foreign governments to GM crop development projects.
In 2010, mass protests across the country stalled the introduction of GM Brinjal (aubergine). The Environment Minister was compelled to take public opinion into account and a moratorium on GM foods crops was installed. In a blatantly undemocratic move, failing to take into account public protests, this bill now allows biotechnology companies to bulldoze the Environment Ministry as well as state governments. This single-window clearance body unconstitutionally denies state government’s authority over agriculture and health issues as the bill explicitly states that the final decision related to GM crops will be taken by the Union government. This is convenient, as several states’ Chief Ministers have already expressed severe doubts over the contents of the bill.
Their worries are not baseless. The bill makes provision for open-air field trials of GM crops that have previously been banned, and allows non-accredited labs to conduct bio-safety assessment tests. Even more worryingly however, it overrides the RTI (Right to Information Act 2005) that was formulated to allow transparency of governance in the first place, and prevents consumers from accessing information about the safety of these new crops.
The repercussions of introducing BT Cotton in India are still reverberating on a national level; there are hundreds of controversial reports linking the crop to farmer debt and suicides, and accusing the Ministry of conducting illegal field trials and tampering with reports. Moreover, Monsanto, the manufacturer of GM cotton seeds in India itself has admitted that BT Cotton has failed in India. The productivity of cotton has fallen while pesticide expenditure has gone up. A Greenpeace report notes that in the year 2009-10, farmers cultivating cotton through organic practices earned 200% more net income than farmers who grew GM cotton.
And yet, India’s Agriculture Minister has stated that the Ministry is "very supportive of GM crop research" and that the government is the process of designing a large number of transgenic crops. He also happens to own a stake in the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mayhco) that develops these very seeds, and is partially owned by Monsanto.
Not a little suspiciously, the BRAI Bill is being pushed by Vilasrao Deshmukh the Science & Technology (S&T) Minister and Sharad Pawar, the Agriculture Minister who has previously staunchly supported Prithviraj Chavan, the last Union Science Minister who also strongly advocated the BT Brinjal bill. It’s not hard to see a pattern here.
This is a blatant case of officials siding with private companies over farmers and completely disregarding public opinion and safety. Ministers within the Parliament itself have said the Bill is both "anti-farmer" and "anti-people," even as hundreds of farmers and environmentalists protest outside Parliament.
While BT Cotton is currently the only GM crop grown in India on a large-scale, there are 56 GM crops under trial. The new BRAI body will be more of a promoter of these crops than a regulator. We cannot risk another GM crop disaster in a country where over 50% of the population relies on agriculture. India is often touted as the world’s largest democracy. If this is true in practice, the BRAI Bill should be scrapped immediately.