anti-GM (genetically modified) groups seem to be winning their battle
against the introduction of the country's first GM food crop,
a Bt brinjal hybrid, developed by Mahyco Seed Company, using
Monsanto's transgenic technology. The regulator's
(GEAC) approval of October 14, 2009, is most likely to be consigned to
the cold storage for a few years at least
The anti-GM (genetically modified) foods campaign gathered momentum in
September 2009, anticipating the regulatory approval of
India's first GM food crop, a Bt brinjal variety developed by
Mahyco. The regulatory approval came on October 14, 2009. But this
setback has not dented the enthusiasm of anti-GM groups. In fact, these
groups stepped up their pressure so much the Minister of State for
Environment and Forests (MoEF) Jairam Ramesh was forced to announce a
nationwide public consultation process before the regulatory approval
Ramesh's consultation process, coordinated by Ahmedabad-based
Center for Environment and Education (CEE) which started in Kolkata and
moved to Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad in the last
four weeks, has been an eye opener.
Fearing that they will be shouted down, the normally reticent
scientific community which primarily works for government-funded
research institutions, has kept away from these public consultation
process. The few dozen seed companies, including the developer of the
Bt brinjal, too have kept away from these meeting leaving the field
clearly for the anti-GM brigade.
No wonder, every consultation meeting of Ramesh has been turned into a
carnival with drum beats, brinjal garland and folk singers in
attendance greeting the minister. At many venues, the minister was told
to shut up vocal activist who told him to just listen to them as that
was the intent of the consultative meeting. The run up to these
meetings had public meetings organized by civil society groups which
gave platform to both pro and anti-GM foods lobbies. However, the
pro-GM voices have been confined to the sidelines by the relentless
campaigners who used a mix of emotional farmers, civil rights activists
and retired scientists to drive home the message that Bt
brinjal is bad and more safety tests should be done under public watch
before its commercial cultivation is allowed.
Surprisingly, the BioAgri industry has been keeping quiet since October
2009. The members of the regulatory agency, the Genetic Engineering
Approval Committee (GEAC) in the MoEF too has been reluctant engage in
any discussion. For this special report, BioSpectrum sought the views
of every member of GEAC and their cryptic reactions are included in
this special feature. Along with it , there is an overview of the
tumultuous meetings on Bt brinjal from across the country that happened
in the last five weeks.
Protests greet minister at Bt
The first round of public consultations on the genetically modified Bt
brinjal was held in Kolkata on January 13, 2010 at the Bose Institute,
in which the Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh heard opinions of
scientists, farmers and research scholars on the issue.
Ramesh said he was holding the first consultation in Kolkata as West
Bengal yielded 30-35 percent of brinjals cultivated in the country. The
minister clarified he was not judging the future of technology but that
he had been given the mandate to get public feedback.
Kolkata University teachers said if government wants to stop the
genetically modified crop cultivation, there should be some sense of
inquiry. And if it is accepted then India should start slowly in a
small-scale and that constant monitoring should be done.
A group of scientists said forcible introduction of Bt brinjal would
create economic and political disturbances. Written representations
were also submitted to the minister who said he was willing to receive
mails on the issue too.
Widespread protests marked the visit of Minister Jairam Ramesh, to the
national consultation on commercialization of Bt brinjal in
Bhubaneshwar on January 16, 2010.
In a novel method of registering their resentment to attempts to allow
commercial production of Bt brinjal in the country, hundreds of women
under the banner of Orissa Nari Samaj (ONS) took out a funeral
procession of Bt brinjal. They set a model of Bt brinjal on fire.
Raising slogans against the scientific community and multinational
companies, the ONS members exhibited indigenous varieties of brinjal,
which they claimed was produced with the use of organic manure.
“The act of trading science for money has proved beyond doubt
that it has spoiled the planet and consequently there is global
warming. Doomsday may not be far unless the people's movement
brings a halt to the act of these destroyers of indigenous
seeds,” said G. John, executive director of Thread, an NGO
that spearheaded the mass movement against genetically modified food
Women members also held a parallel consultation meeting where they
opposed the introduction of Bt brinjal saying the approval by the GEAC
was a conspiracy against farmers. Rights activists, scientists and
other people from different walks of life addressed the gathering. ONS
activists and members of other NGOs marched towards the venue to gift
the minister organic brinjals. Various farmers' organizations
from far away districts had reached the venue with placards to show
their resentment to attempts to allow Bt brinjal in the country.
Over 1,200 individuals gathered at the JB Auditorium, Ahmedabad
Management Association for the third round of the seven consultations
on January 19, 2010. People also came from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh,
Maharashtra and Gujarat to voice their concerns on the much debated
genetically modified food crop.
In the first session, out of 28 farmers who got to speak, 18 rejected
Bt brinjal. In the second session, where scientists expressed their
views and feedback, an overwhelming 13 scientists out of 15 scientists
who spoke, took a stand against the entry of Bt brinjal. The minister
spoke to an audience of over 500 stakeholders inside the auditorium
while another 700 stood outside, waiting to be heard.
The reactions at this round were similar to the ones seen in the
earlier consultations. Stakeholders at the Ahmedabad consultations
urged the Minister of Environment and Forests to stop Bt brinjal.
Consumer representatives, youth, women, farmers, NGOs, scientists and
academicians brandished banners and placards as they waited outside the
auditorium. 'Let me choose what I eat',
'We are no lab rats', 'GM food an attack
on the environment' were some of the messages given to the
minister at the consultation.
The minister suggested that Ahmedabad was important because Bt cotton
was successful here. He assured that the ministry was in no hurry to
come to a conclusion, and would not take a decision in a closed room.
Jairam Ramesh faced similar but more aggressive protests of farmers in
Hyderabad demanding that the government reverse its decision. The
protesters from Left-affiliated farmers' outfits and Swadeshi
Jagaran Manch (SJM) raised slogans like “Bt go
back” and mobbed the minister on the dais at an event
organised at the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture
(CRIDA) in Hyderabad. Those supporting Bt Brinjal also raised slogans
in support of their demand, resulting in chaos. Additional police
forces were called into the venue to rein the agitators.
As the protesters left the hall, Ramesh regretted the incident as no
such scenes were witnessed at other public hearings held earlier. He
however asserted that he will not come under the influence of any
company or NGO. The minister said he wanted to hold an impartial public
consultation over the matter. The final decision on the matter would be
taken after holding fair public hearings on the issue in other states.
These four consultations seem to have set the mood for the remaining
ones. As the consultation process moves ahead, the country
hopes to hear a lot more NOs to Bt brinjal.
7 states show “red
flag” to Bt brinjal
a major setback to the BioAgri industry, seven major states which
together account for more than 70 percent of brinjal cultivation in the
country have said an emphatic “No” to the
introduction of Bt brinjal.
Mararikulam is a popular
beach town on the Kerala coast in Alappuzha district, famous for its
backwaters. But this year, the New Year revelry was replaced with an
unusual event, called the Mararikulam Brinjal Festival, organized by
Mararikulam North Panchyat. Thousands of activists and local citizens
visited the festival which showcased a few hundred varieties of
brinjals grown in the country. Interestingly, brinjal is not
a popular vegetable in the coastal state.
Attended by Kerala's state ministers and hundreds of anti-GM
(Genetically Modified) food activists, at a big public meeting, it was
decided to strongly opposed the introduction of the country's
first GM food crop, a transgenic hybrid brinjal variety developed by
Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) which has been given the
regulatory approval on October 14, 2009.
Kerala's finance minister, Thomas Issac, declared the
intention of the state to keep it “GM free” and not
allow cultivation of Bt brinjal variety. This announcement came on
January 2, 2010, just a day before Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh
arrived in Kerala's capital city of
Thiruvananthapuram to inaugurate the annual Indian Science Congress
Perhaps, taking a cue from the swelling public opinion against Bt
brinjal, Dr Singh called for caution on this front in his speech.
“The technology of genetic modification is also being
extended to food crops though this raises legitimate questions of
safety. These must be given full weightage, with appropriate regulatory
control based on strictly scientific criteria.”
In the normal circumstances, this would have been an innocuous
statement by the PM. But the statements made in these two coastal
cities of Kerala have sent ripples through the country. And there is
now a clamor among chief ministers in other states to join the anti-Bt
brinjal bandwagon. So much so by the end of Janaury, seven states have
declared that they will not allow cultivation of Bt brinjal even if the
central government gives the final clearance for its commercial
Kerala is ruled by a coalition of left parties. West Bengal, another
left ruled state, was the next to join the “No Bt
brinjal” corus with the Chief Minsiter Budhadeb
Bhattacharya, showing the “red flag” to the
transgenic brinjal variety even as Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh
kicked off his nationwide public consultation process from the Kolkata
in early January.
The ripples then reached the adjoining state of Bihar where the Chief
Minister Nitish Kumar, said “no” to Bt brinjal for
the moment. He said the issue was carefully considered by the
Rajya Kisan Ayog (state agriculture commission), which, after
deliberations with farmers, agricultural scientists and agricultural
officers was of the opinion that there should be an adequate number of
trials to see its performance in different agro-climatic conditions in
Orissa was the next state to say no to Bt brinjal. Within a few days,
Karnataka's Horticulture Minister Umesh Katti publicly
expressed his preference for traditional varieties
brinjal which are grown in the state and cautioned
against the introduction of Bt brinjal in the state during a meeting
with farmers. “I have instructed the officials to encourage
and prepare a blueprint to develop our own varieties of brinjal. We
have seen the plight of Bt cotton and its consequences. Why introduce
Bt brinjal and bear that again?,” Katti said.
Within a few days, Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa approved
Katti's stand and told a delegation of anti-GM groups which
met him on January 25 that state would not allow the transgenic
varieties of brinjal for cultivation. “The state is the
5th largest producer of brinjal in the country. We are
growing more than 40 varieties of brinjal. We will not allow anything
that may put our farmers in a difficult spot,” said the chief
Soon leaders of other brinjal growing states like
Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh also made public
announcements against Bt brinjal. Interestingly, of these seven anti-Bt
brinjal states, six are ruled by parties opposed to the central
government run by the Congress party. The 7th “no
Bt brinjal state” Andhra Pradesh is run by the Congress
party. Tamil Nadu, a partner in the ruling coalition in Delhi, has
called for caution on the issue.
Voices in the wilderness on Bt
the anti-Bt brinjal juggernaut which has dozens of civil society
groups, environment organizations, a range of non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) corner the entire media attention in the last five
to six weeks, a small group of agricultural experts have been making
some attempts to get themselves heard in the din.
“We are scientists. We cannot win a shouting match with the
activists at the public consultation caravan that has been going around
the country,” said a dejected Prof Kameswara Rao, a retired
agricultural scientists and now secretary of Bangalore-based Foundation
for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE), a biotechnology
However, the group which has some of Karnataka's
best agricultural scientists as members, rebutted every issue raised by
anti-GM activists with scientific facts, at a meeting with the media.
Even when the agricultural scientific community in the wide network of
publicly funded laboratories keep quiet and the BioAgri industry itself
not very vocal about Bt brinjal, FBAE has joined the debate in a
These are some clarifications
provided by FBAE on the Bt brinjal issue:
Suresh & Jahanara Parveen in Bangalore
- Bt brinjal helps in reducing
the cultivation expenses on the use of synthetic pesticdes up to 77
percent, benefiting millions of farmers by enhancing marketable yield.
The consumer gets health fruit and value for money paid. It also
greatly reduces the risk from synthetic chemicals to the farmers,
consumers, non-target organisms, soil, water and environment in general.
- Bt brinjal has passed
through the prescribed mandatory bio safety tests according to Indian
regulations. Two expert committees reviewed the bio safety
dossier. The second committee concluded on October 8, 2009, that the Bt
brinjal with event EE-1 ( Cry 1 Ac) has been extensively tested for its
bio safety and no additional studies/review are necessary. Based on
this, on October 14, 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee
(GEAC) approved Bt brinjal for commercialization.
- However, the Minister of
State for Environment and Forests (MoEF), had opted for further
consultation with different stakeholders, which virtually overrides the
decision of the GEAC. All the stakeholders had already involved
themselves on the issue of Bt brinjal for about five years.
- The stand taken by the MoEF
has created a lot of regulatory uncertainty for no valid scientific or
environmental concern. No technology developer can afford to operate in
the country to develop any biotech crop with such an uncertainty of an
approval process that is not based on science.
- The charge sheet by activist
include several issues, such as that a) genetically engineered (GE)
crops are toxic and allergenic, b) they harm non-target
organisms, c) gene flow from transgenics eliminates related
varieties/species, d) they become super weeds and eliminate all
vegetation, e) they negatively impact ecology and bio diversity, f)
there is a terminator gene in GE crops affecting farmers'
interests, etc. They even attribute farmer suicides to failure of GE
crops. There is extensive scientific literature that amply demonstrates
that there is no truth in any of the above charges and allegations.
- The activist make an
emotional argument that India is the country of origin of brinjal, for
which there is no scientific evidence.
- The opposition to Bt brinjal
means to India nothing but a reduced marketable yield, an
increased use of pesticides (with economic as well as health damage to
farmers, consumers and environment). The government should decide
whether to help Indian farmers or pesticide producing corporations.