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January 28, 2010

Why so niggardly about debating concerns relating to Genetically Modified Foods, Mr. Jairam Ramesh?

The print media has widely reported the public protests accompanying the first of the seven consultative meetings to discuss the recent decision of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to clear commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal organized at Kolkata by the minister of state for environment Jairam Ramesh. A select group of scientists, farmers, activists and concerned citizens were inside the hall at the Bose Institute. Reportedly, `some scientists and a few farmers' spoke in favour of the decision but most of the speakers opposed it and some farmers groups vociferously challenged the data presented by a couple of scientists. Outside the hall, however, the protests of large numbers of those excluded from the deliberations inside the hall continued throughout the duration of the meeting.  

Jairam Ramesh came out to reassure them that he is no `agent of Monsanto' because otherwise he would not have put the issue up for public debate. Unfortunately, he did not address the cause of public apprehension about the impartiality of what would be a crucial policy decision - permitting the commercialization of the first ever genetically modified food crop with the toxin-producing Bt gene.  

The GEAC's clearance was based on the recommendations of its expert sub-committee (EC2), which was set up only after independent reviews of Mahyco's bio-safety data began coming in during January 2009. These followed a prolonged RTI struggle and orders by the Supreme Court in 2008 to make the data publicly accessible. EC2 had 16 members, of whom five could clearly be said to have a `conflict of interest' on considering the Mahyco application for commercialization of Bt brinjal. Prof. Arjula Reddy, the Chairperson of the Committee, in reply to a question on proof of the safety of Bt brinjal, has been quoted as follows in Tehelka (vol. 6, No. 44, Nov. 07, 2009) : "What we require is long-range research done over many years. That does not exist (for Bt brinjal)." Yet clearance was given because "all the approved protocols by the government have  been fulfilled by the developers and the public institutions (that participated in the safety assessment)". Regrettably, the final report of EC2 fails to reflect such candor  or caution. 

Clearly, the need for public debate  is neither a personal indulgence for which we are obliged to the minister, nor should it be restricted to a few centres and select participants. It is a necessary feature, and must be recognized to be so by government agencies,  of a policy aimed at introducing radical technologies with far-reaching consequences for the Indian people and the environment. The argument that issues  of science and technology are best left to `expert committees', and that democratic values are ill-informed intrusions when making developmental choices and  determining the efficiencies of strategies for raising productivity, is outmoded and  runs counter to the experience of many popular movements. 

Two recent  interactions, which were both wide-ranging and inclusive, concerning the clearance given by the GEAC to Bt Brinjal are significant because of the target groups mobilized and the agency initiating the mobilization.  

A group of about 15 students and a couple of teachers from Zakir Husain College, an under-graduate college of the Delhi University, began to familiarize themselves with the nature of genetic engineering a couple of months ago. During an inspiring workshop with geneticist Prof. Antoniou of Imperial College, London, they entered the fascinating world of the complex structure of gene functions. The notion of a mechanical nature, controllable by an over-arching `science' of absolutely predictable `results' and leaving little room for options, alternatives or controversy was quickly dispelled. So was the idea of genetic engineering as its instrumentalist corollary - an isolated one-gene-one-trait precision technology. Awareness of the unpredictability and power of nature, and of the foolhardiness of racing towards corporate profits before adequate and meticulous laboratory research can be completed, resulted from this workshop and was only strengthened by further study. 

This learning process has now developed, in alliance with Youth for Safe Foods, into an on-going campaign advocating opposition to Bt Brinjal. Through film shows and lectures, followed by Q-and-A sessions, and through poster competitions, large numbers of students have been sensitized and motivated to get involved in the campaign. Just before the winter vacations, on December 17, 2009,   about four hundred students and teachers took a three-hour long padyatra through the densely populated walled city and interacted with local residents and shop-keepers. A leaflet in Hindi and Urdu was distributed and discussed. A  street play was performed. It was the first time that the students had interacted as an institutional collective with areas adjacent to the college. The experience was so positive on both sides that the students are now planning visits to specific mohallas in smaller groups to initiate debate on why we must make the effort to understand and be active on issues that may appear to be difficult to comprehend but which impact our lives so directly as consumers.  

It was most encouraging to see how university students, said to be focused these days only on individual ambitions and financial goals, could become so involved with issues and values with a wider social significance. Because of this experience, they saw how the interests of science and of democratizing choice move forward together, and do not stand in opposition to each other. A commonality of  concerns unites the expert and the lay person. The students also learnt the value of being well-informed as a crucial feature of responsible citizenship and the demand of greater accountability of governments.   

Just two weeks later, I was fortunate enough to participate in an event organized by local producers emphasizing the need to protect local bio-diversity and oppose the clearance given for the commercialization of Bt Brinjal. The Mararikulam North grama panchayat in Allapuzha district of Kerala, organized the `Mararikulam Brinjal Festival' between December 27, 2001 - January 3, 2010, which culminated in a national seminar, in collaboration with All India People's Science Network and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, on January 2, 2010.  

The panchayat covers eight thousand families, most of whom are in the BPL category and derive their income from coconut production, fishing and agriculture on small holdings. Intrusion of foreign trawlers, and the spread of a root-wilting affliction in the coconut trees, have combined to severely effect employment and income. The panchayat leadership promoted, and organizationally and financially supported, a programme for restoring and increasing vegetable production through the involvement of every family and women's groups, using eco-friendly cultivation methods, including integrated pest management systems. Several indigenous brinjal varieties and a specially popular local brinjal, dubbed the maririkulam brinjal, occupy pride of place in this successful project. A brinjal nursery and seed bank of these varieties is maintained under the NREGS scheme. The clearance given to the Bt Brinjal poses a direct threat to this very successful strategy for income generation and environment rejuvenation and practical concerns formed the strongest motivation for the panchayat's decision to organize the festival and name it after a popular local variety of brinjal. The  initiative was strongly supported by local MLA and state Finance Minister, Dr. Thomas Issac, who has conceived and implemented significant strategies for enhancing the role of panchayats as institutions of local self-government. 

Conceived as a big event to inform and mobilize public opinion on the issue, the festival was preceded by widespread campaigns throughout the panchayat. Large exhibition pandals at the venue displayed specimens of the regions rich agro-bio-diversity and show-cased methods of sustainable agriculture. Cultural programmes and a documentary film festival created a lively atmosphere of imaginative interaction and debate. The response was overwhelming. Over a lakh people participated in the event over several days.  Daily, groups from all over the state and from all its educational institutions could be seen taking part in the `panchayat tours' to examine and learn from the Mararikulam projects. 

 The day-long national seminar brought the popular movement face-to-face with experts from the sciences and the social sciences. The interaction was marked by its quality. The participants, present in large number, were attentive and keenly questioned speakers. Speakers, among them eminent scientist Prof. P.M. Bhargava who delivered the inaugural address, represented a wide variety of scientific, economic and sociological opinion, ensuring lively debates and exchange of ideas. The statement adopted by the participants of the seminar endorsed the stand of the panchayat that it was "not opposed to the science of bio-technology and genetic engineering, a very important component of ongoing advance in science and technology". However, it  strongly supported and recognized the validity of "the concerns expressed by the grama panchayat, its farmers and women's groups with respect to the commercial introduction of Bt Brinjal". Reflecting the opinions voiced during the day-long deliberations, the statement flagged the following issues: 

Ÿ  the threat to local bio-diversity and breeds, to organic farming practices, and the creation of monopolies of multi-national  corporations like Monsanto/ Mahyco over seed and agricultural inputs. Bio-safety issues were also focused as Ayurvedic physicians of Kerala warned of the loss of medicinal value of Bt brinjal.

Ÿ  the  precautionary principle of ensuring adequate long-term and short-term laboratory tests by independent agencies, has been severely compromised in the case of Bt Brinjal as not only the tests, which are conducted by MNC's, but even the regulatory mechanism, have been directly influenced and determined to accommodate corporate interests. Further rules for field trials continue to be violated by MNC's despite protests by the concerned state governments.

Ÿ  an enormous body of scientific evidence with regard to adverse health and environmental impact of Bt Brinjal deserves recognition and GEAC's evasive and dismissive responses are unacceptable.

Ÿ  India is a centre of origin for brinjal with over 400 varieties. Internationally, GM species are not promoted in such countries.

Ÿ  there are serious misgivings over the contractual relationship between MNC's Monsanto/ Mahyco and the Indian research institutes involved with regard to intellectual property rights. Given the escalating and exhorbitant costs of royalty for Bt Cotton seeds, this too is a matter of concern.

Ÿ  Ninety percent of the member nations of the UN do not permit the use of GM foods. This should not only alert policy makers, but also make them consider that introduction of GM foods would adversely impact the country's exports.


The statement therefore demanded that there should be

Ÿ  a moratorium on commercial introduction of GM foods till "the government set up a creditable and transparent institutional structure for undertaking longer and medium term laboratory and field studies."

Ÿ  a cadre of scientists trained in bio-safety assessment must be established.

Ÿ  the problems and concerns of small farmers in different agro-economic zones should form an integral part of any competent evaluation of transgenic crops and other strategies for development of agriculture.

 Jairam Ramesh has reportedly stated that the government's decision on the GEAC's recommendation will be taken after the seven consultative meetings are over. All the meetings held so far have met with protests, as much against the decision as against the manner in which public debate is sought to be confined. If the experience of the two decentralized and popularly constituted `consultations' that I have had the benefit of being a part of, are to be learnt from, then the Minister should use his resources to throw open the debate to wider sections and take the time to hear what people have to say. The decision to introduce GM foods commercially is far-reaching and would have an enormous impact on the health of the people and on the environment. Any hasty decisions following a few consultations confined to select participants would not absolve the Minister, or the government of which he is a part, of the charge of being, as he so colorfully put it, "an agent of Monsanto". 

Author Madhu Prasad, prod of Philosophy, Zakir Hussain College. New Delhi



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