A setback for GM in India - The Economist
A setback for GM in India
The Economist, Feb 11 2010
BANGALORE - HUNDREDS of farmers in long, faded cotton sarongs swarmed outside an auditorium at Bangalore University on February 6th. They were waiting for India’s Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh. This was the last of his public consultations on the commercial release of Bt Brinjal, a genetically modified (GM) aubergine, created by Mahyco, an Indian hybrid-seed company, and Monsanto, an American biotech giant. Waving placards and appetising images of aubergines, known in India as brinjal, they shouted themselves hoarse praising the transgenic vegetable.
But most of these men, registered at the consultation as farmers, were in fact landless labourers with no aubergine experience. Mr Ramesh was the first to call their bluff. The companies, he said, without naming any, had bussed farmers from rural districts, to play the pro-GM crowd at the hearing that day.
The tactic failed miserably. On February 10th Mr Ramesh announced that he would not allow Bt Brinjal to be grown or consumed in India until independent studies could show that it would have no adverse impact on human health, the environment or biodiversity. This overruled the recommendation last October by India's Genetically Engineered Approvals Committee (GEAC) that Bt Brinjal was safe, in spite of being modified with a gene from the soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis.
Mr Ramesh's seven-city roadshow to canvas public views was unusual. And many were surprised at his decision to snub the seed companies and powerful domestic and American biotech lobbies. GM crops have always been highly controversial in India. But they already account for about 85% of the cotton grown there. Supporters claim that Bt Brinjal could cut losses from insect damage by over 50%, and pesticide usage by 80%.
The moratorium is a victory for what has become India's first nationwide anti-GM movement. After the GEAC judgment, consumers, medical groups, farmers and state governments mobilised at once to campaign against Bt Brinjal. Hindu-nationalist and Communist politicians rallied to the unmodified brinjal's cause. Anti-GM groups cried foul over India's lack of an independent biosafety regulator. They also argued that the guidelines for trials of GM foods are flawed and that studies revealing more about the long-term health dangers had been ignored.
Environmental groups claimed Bt Brinjal might, through cross-pollination, wipe out thousands of indigenous brinjal varieties. Throughout November and December the "Coalition for a GM-Free India", grouping more than 100 NGOs from 15 states, campaigned at village councils and farmers’ meetings, political rallies and in the non-English press and blogosphere. They held countless protests, fasts and educational drives in public schools.
The crucial step, however, was to enlist the support of the chief ministers of the state governments””a requirement the seed companies seem to have overlooked Under India's federal constitution, agriculture is a "state subject". States have the authority to regulate the planting or importing of GM crops. In mid-January the states, one after another, began to declare themselves against the release of Bt Brinjal. With nearly half of India's 29 states opposed, "a lack of consensus in the scientific community" and an unusually well-organised national protest movement, Mr Ramesh, said his official statement, felt obliged to be "responsible to science and responsive to society" and impose an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal.