India becoming a GM-trashbin
By Devinder Sharma
As the world wakes up to human health and environment nuisance from the genetically modified (GM) crops, India is fast turning into a dustbin for the new technology.
In March, Western Australia became the first Australian state to ban outright planting of GM food crops. Its Premier, Geoff Gallop, said he did not want to jeopardise his state's canola industry at a time when international consumer sentiment was opposed to GM crops. Within a few days of this decision, Victoria imposed a four year moratorium on the cultivation of GM oilseeds rape to "protect its clean and green" image. South Australia and Tasmania have already banned GM crops. Four states imposed a moratorium on growing GM crops in a space of five days.
In the United States, Mendocino county in California became the nation's first to ban the raising and keeping of genetically engineered crops or animals. In March, the hilly state of Vermont, in a historic decision, voted overwhelmingly to support a bill to hold biotech corporations liable for unintended contamination of conventional or organic crops by genetically engineered plant materials. This bill is the first of its kind in the world that aims to protect a farmer from being sued by the seed companies if his crops are contaminated with GMO material.
In Britain, the dramatic turnaround by Bayer Crop Science to give up attempts to commercialize GM maize, have ensured that the country remains GM free till at least 2008. Despite Tony Blair's blind love for the industry, a tough GM regulatory regime came in the way of the adoption of the technology. In Japan, consumer groups announced their intention to present a petition signed by over 1,000,000 people to Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister, Bob Speller. The petition calls for a ban on GE wheat in Canada. Japan is one of the biggest markets for Canadian wheat.
In April, however, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in India approved another Bt cotton variety for the central and southern regions amidst reports that the go ahead came without adequate scientific testing. The approval also comes at a time when the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is seeking public comment on petitions from Mycogen Seeds to deregulate two lines of genetically engineered insect-resistant cotton. APHIS is seeking public comment on whether these cotton lines pose a plant pest risk.
Such has been the casual approach to regulating this most-controversial technology that it has become practically difficult to keep track of who is the new GEAC chief. They keep on changing at a pace faster than that expected from musical chairs. At the same time, while Britain had set in place a tougher regulatory regime making the companies liable for any environmental mishap, India continues to ignore the warning. The regulations that the GEAC had announced at the time of according approval to Bt cotton in 2002 were only aimed at pacifying the media. The GEAC has not been held accountable for the deliberate attempts to obfuscate the public opinion in an effort to help the seed industry make a fast buck.
It is a widely accepted fact that the safety regulations, including the mandatory buffer zone or refuge around the Bt cotton fields, were not adhered to. Yet the Ministry of Environment and Forests refrained from penalizing the seed company. Nor did it direct Mahyco-Monsanto to compensate crop losses that the farmers suffered in the very first year of planting Bt cotton in 2002-03. That the crop had failed to yield the desired results was even highlighted in a parliamentary committee report.
Not all GM decisions are taken in accordance with scientific principles. While a NGO petition before the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) seeking an enquiry into the entire monitoring, evaluation and approval process was ignored, the US authorities have launched an investigation into reports of alleged bribing of Indonesian government officials who approved Bt cotton. Both the US Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission are examining whether a former consultant to Monsanto made an improper US $50,000 payment in early 2002.
Monsanto spokeswoman Lori Fisher was quoted as saying: "These are serious allegations and we will continue to cooperate.'' Reuters reports that the company is one of the world's leading developers of genetically modified seeds, but has had trouble getting some of its biotech crops approved in foreign countries, including a biotech cotton introduced in Indonesia in 2001. Monsanto closed down the biotech cotton sales operations in 2003 after two unsuccessful years that came amid complaints over yields and pricing.
India has meanwhile become a favored destination for the biotechnology industry that is virtually on the run from the US, European Union and Australia. In Europe, a 2002 survey showed 61 per cent of the private sector cancelled R&D as a result of moratorium actions. With highly critical reports of regulatory mechanism coming in from respectable independent institutions, the trend in US is also towards still tougher regulations thereby forcing biotechnology companies to grow the next generation of GM crops in abandoned mines, using artificial lighting and air filtration to prevent pollen movement.
In India on the other hand, besides cotton, genetic engineering experiments are being conducted on maize, mustard, sugarcane, sorghum, pigeonpea, chickpea, rice, tomato, brinjal, potato, banana, papaya, cauliflower, oilseeds, castor, soyabean and medicinal plants. Experiments are also underway on several species of fish. In fact, such is the desperation that scientists are trying to insert Bt gene into any crop they can lay their hands on, not knowing whether this is desirable or not. The mad race for GM experiments is the outcome of more funding from the biotech companies as well as support from the World Bank, FAO and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Politicians see biotechnology as the goose that lays the golden eggs and are therefore opening up the state treasure chests to subsidise the sunrise industry. Prime land is being doled out at a throwaway price.
Interestingly, while the rest of the world is stopping GM research in its tracks lest it destroys the farm trade opportunities due to public rejection of the genetically engineered food, Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) as well as chief ministers of a dozen states merrily continue to sow the thorny seeds for agricultural exports thereby jeopardizing the future of domestic farming. But then, who cares for the farmers as long as GM research ensures the livelihood security for a few thousand agricultural scientists, entrepreneurs and politicians. #
(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst)