Hamara Beej

Friday, August 12, 2011

GM crops by backdoor

Apart from issues related to seed monopoly and rural livelihood, there are serious biosafety concerns the world over.

Across the world, there is huge controversy around the introduction of genetically modified/engineered (GM/GE) crops. On one hand there are a few biotech crop developers and scientists recommending the use of GM technology as solution for food security and on other there are concerns about its impact on human health, environment and socioeconomy.

Added to that is the unpredictability and irreversibility of genetic engineering and the uncontrollability of GM crops once let out in the environment. One of the major concerns about GM crops is that they only serve the purpose of multinational seed giants. All GM technologies come along with Intellectual Property Rights and patent tags of multinational seed companies which would ensure their monopolies as has happened in the case of Bt cotton, the only GM crop commercially cultivated in India.

While there were 619 varieties of Bt cotton approved for release until Aug 2009 in the country, 514 of them are owned by Monsanto, the US multinational seed giant, which also holds a global monopoly in the total seed sales of Bt cotton.

One has already seen how Monsanto has armtwisted the state governments in India to increase the cotton seed prices this season. Bt Brinjal, the first GM food crop to have reached commercialisation stage in our country, also had a Cry 1Ac gene owned by Monsanto and licenced to Mahyco for developing Bt Brinjal. There is a threat of GM crops becoming the tool for control of the seed and thereby the agriculture sector by multinational seed corporations.

Apart from issues related to seed monopoly and rural livelihood, there are serious biosafety concerns being debated world over. Different studies have consistently indicated the possible ill-effects of GMs on health and environment. There is a clear need for an independent report on various effects of GM crops, including long term studies and chronic toxicity studies. Biosafety concerns must be addressed before any open air release of GM crops including field trials.

It is in this context that one should look at the growing debate on GM crops in India. The crisis in Indian agriculture needs no further statement, but to attribute it to just technology lag and promote technofixes, like GM crops, as the only solution to it is not only myopic but also criminal and this is precisely what the Indian government seems to be doing.

The debate in India on GE crops started with Bt cotton, the only commercially approved GE crop in the country (March, 2002) and had become loud and visible around the approval of Bt Brinjal.

During public consultations organised by the Union ministry of environment and forests last year on Bt Brinjal, there were concerns raised by farmers, civil society, and health and environment experts against GM crops and also against the existing regulatory system in the country, the government then rolled back the approval validating these concerns.

Field trials 
While Bt Brinjal is under moratorium, numerous GM crops are being released in to the open fields in the name of field trials, which could lead to contamination of our regular crop varieties by these GM crops whose biosafety is yet to be ascertained. Efforts are also on by GM crop developers like Monsanto to push herbicide tolerant corn and cotton in India. Field trials of these crops have been happening and are expected to come up for commercialisation soon.

Recommendations submitted by the Swaminathan Task Force on Agri-Biotechnology, whose report was accepted by the government in 2004, clearly stated that India should  adopt  such technologies as genetic engineering only where alternatives do not exist. It also categorically rejected technologies that would be detrimental to agriculture labour like the herbicide tolerant crops.

To top it all the government is proposing a new regulatory system for GM crops called the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) which is supposed to be tabled in the monsoon session. From what one has seen of the media leaked versions of its drafts, BRAI is going to lower the bar for approvals of GM crops. The problems with the proposed bill starts with the grave conflict of interest where the regulator is proposed to be located in the ministry of science and technology which also has the mandate  to promote GM crops in the country.

The last version seen in the media paints the picture of a centralised technocratic body with pretty much no role for the elected representatives of the people of this country. It did not have longterm biosafety assessments and also maintains the current system of letting the GM crop developer do the biosafety assessment.

It also proposed to circumvent the Right to Information Act, 2005, and went even to the extent of proposing imprisonment and fines for those opposing GM crops without scientific evidence. Thus the BRAI that government plans to put in place, at its onset looks like a non transparent, unquestionable authority.

Given that the existing regulatory system is defunct, what needs to be immediately done is stopping the release of any GM crop in to our environment be it for commercialisation or for research. We should not fail to ask fundamental questions like whether there is a need for this technology and whether safer and sustainable alternatives exist for a proposed product.

This is what the existing and proposed regulatory systems for GM crops fail to do in India and the fact is that for any GM crop that is being developed in any part of the word right now, there exists ecological alternatives which are economically and socially sustainable.

(The writer is the chairman of parliament’s standing committee on agriculture)

Legal action against two firms in BT brinjal case

NEW DELHI:  The BT brinjal case just got murkier.Government's National Biodiversity Authority has decided to take legal action against Mayhco and Monsanto for using Indian varieties of the vegetable without mandatory permissions. 

The authority, meant to govern use of Indian genetic resources by business and research groups, decided in its meeting in June to initiate legal action against the companies and their collaborators for violating the Biodiversity Conservation Act and using the genetic material from India without the mandatory permissions from either the state or central board authorised to permit such work. 

The last meeting of NBA recorded, "A background note besides legal opinion on Bt brinjal on the alleged violation by the Mahyco/Monsanto, and their collaborators for accessing and using the local brinjal varieties for development of Bt brinjal without prior approval of the competent authorities was discussed and it was decided that the NBA may proceed legally against Mahyco/Monsanto, and all others concerned to take the issue to its logical conclusion." 

The move comes after a Bangalore-based NGO, Environment Support Group, filed a case before the state authority - Karnataka Biodiversity Board -- against the companies and consortium of research organizations for using the Indian varieties without mandatory clearances. 

Environment Support Group complained to the Karnataka Biodiversity Board on February 15, 2011. The state authority investigated the matter and in May 2011 reported to the national board that six local varieties had been used for development of Bt Brinjal without permissions. Mayhco and its collaborator, the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, defended themselves before the state authority for not seeking permissions stating that the project did not involve profit making or transfer of genetic resources. 

Under the Biodiversity Act, violations of this nature can attract up to three years of imprisonment and Rs 5 lakh penalty.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Save our onions from seed predators

  | August 11, 2011

An internationally reputed entomologist, Petr Svacha, was arrested and put behind bars in a Darjeeling jail a couple of years ago for allegedly violating the Biodiversity Protection Act 2002. His crime: he was found collecting some moths and insects in forest areas. None of them were endangered species nor was Svacha in a protected forest.

Now contrast this with another case of biopiracy. A multinational seed firm is accused of 'accessing' nine local varieties of eggplant and using this plant material to develop a genetically modified brinjal variety - popularly known as bt brinjal.

One of the state biodiversity boards finds prima facie violation of the Act and forwards the complaint to the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) for further action. NBA not only sits on the complaint for over a year, but also processes a fresh application by the same company to 'access' indigenous germlines of onions. In one case, a scientist is summarily jailed allegedly for being a biopirate, while in the other no action is taken even after evidence of biopiracy is found against a powerful commercial entity.

These two incidents demonstrate how India has made a sham of its biodiversity regulation.

NBA had to be set up to fulfill obligations after India signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. It took a long time for the authority and state boards to become functional.

Once NBA was set up, it was promptly converted into a convenient parking lot for bureaucrats from agriculture and environment ministries. All its chairmen since 2003 have been serving or retired babus, and members are all joint secretary level officers from different ministries.

One can call it a committee of joint secretaries rather than NBA. Even so-called nonofficial members are also drawn from the same pool. In fact, for the first time NBA will have a Chairman from outside the babudom this week. The problem with these people is that they consider the authority as an extension of the government, and have reduced it to a clearing house of applications from multinationals for accessing India's biodiversity.

While applications from commercial firms for accessing biological material are processed with alacrity, complaints against them are not handled with the same level of efficiency. The time taken by NBA in dealing with the complaint of biopiracy against Monsanto, which now wants to access onion parental lines, is a case in point.

The Monsanto application for the use of onion plant material for developing commercial grade onion hybrid seeds also raises some fundamental issues.

How do you arrive at value of plant material and who decides this? The company is going to pay Rupees ten lakh to the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research for 25 grams each of Male sterile (A line) and Maintener (B line) of MS 48 and MS 65 as 'onetime license fee'. Is this the right price for a plant material which would perhaps spin a multi-billion dollar hybrid onion business for Monsanto? Should it be Rs 10 lakh or Rs 100 crore? (the export market alone of Indian onions is in excess of Rs 1000 crore a year).

When hybrids are already being developed in state-funded Directorate of Onion and Garlic Research, should a predatory seed firm be allowed entry at all? All these questions need convincing answers. Onion prices can bring tears in the eyes of politicians at the time of elections and bring down governments.

Hope the issue of biodiversity of onion will be dealt with the same level of gravity.