In a move that took the nation by surprise, Indian Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, announced a moratorium on the commercialization of Bt-Brinjal. He did this almost a day ahead of schedule and managed to leave everyone amazed at the speed with which the decision was made. Coming in the wake of heated and emotional debates with farmers, scientists, environmental groups and various other stake-holders, held across India, the decision has come as a huge relief for marginal farmers who would have borne the brunt of this technology to the hilt. Also, I personally consider this to be a victory of activists like Dr.Vandana Shiva, who have been battling the skewed policies of Monsanto for years now. The furore created by the current food-crop has been instrumental in making the government listen to sane voices instead of simply pushing an invalidated and potentially dangerous technology down our throats. So I guess it is a victory for democracy as well. This debate has taught us many important lessons, and I think this is a good opportunity to learn from them and to enable ourselves to build a strong, unbiased and scientifically irrefutable system for regulating the entry of new technology in this country.

Jairam Ramesh

Jairam Ramesh

In a hurried press conference on Tuesday night, Mr. Ramesh, announced the moratorium on Bt-Brinjal, which has been marketed in India by Mahyco-Monsanto. The moratorium will last “till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country,” said Ramesh. He further went on to say, “If you need long term toxicity tests, then you must do it, no matter how long it takes… There is no hurry. There is no overriding urgency or food security argument for [release of] Bt brinjal. Our objective is to restore public confidence and trust in the Bt brinjal product. If it cannot be done, so be it.” He made an important point as far as seed security and biodiversity are concerned, saying, “I don’t believe India should be dependent on the private sector seed industry, I believe seeds are as strategic to India as space and nuclear issues.”

Dr M S Swaminathan

Dr M S Swaminathan

The decision has been hailed by Environmentalists and scientists as well as farmers and several sections of the press. The father of the Green Revolution in India,Dr. M.S.Swaminathan, has proclaimed the decision wise and said that all speculations and fears should be allayed before introducing the technology since, “After all, it is the public who has to consume it, not the government. The risks and benefits should be carefully evaluated”. Swaminathan had advised Ramesh to assess the chronic effects of the consumption of the brinjal through studies at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, and the Central Food Technology Research Institute, Mysore.

Hailing the decision, pro- environment group Greenpeace however, cautioned that the government must assure the people against ‘backdoor entry’ of the 41 other GM crops waiting in the pipeline. They have urged the Government to put stringent systems in place to set up independent regulatory bodies to ensure scientific evaluation of safety and efficacy of the new technology. According to PM Bhargava, Supreme Court nominee on the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, there should be an institutional set-up for the tests to be carried out on Bt brinjal.

Dr Pushpa M Bhargava

Dr Pushpa M Bhargava

The tests would be carried out on animals and in some cases, even monkeys. “I have personally never opposed Bt brinjal,” he said but maintained that tests have to be carried out for long-term health effects. I would like to quote the very important observation made in the blog of Navdaanya, the site run by Dr. Vandana Shiva, “Navdanya welcomes this decision. We also welcome commitments made by the minister for creating a more robust biosafety framework including independent testing as well as mandatory labeling. However, the minister makes no reference to creating a liability framework in case of contamination by GM crops.  The period of the Moratorium should not be used to streamline approvals of GMOs.  The moratorium must be used for doing independent arrangements for deepening the democratic process of decision making and for deepening the federal structure for agriculture.  The rejection of Bt. Brinjal by the state governments is a major reason for the moratorium. Another reason is the evidence that the genetically engineered Bt. Brinjal is an unreliable method of pest control.  Ecological/organic farming and non-pesticide management are proven methods for controlling pests and producing pesticide free food.  These alternatives need to be further developed in the period of the moratorium.  The Government’s single minded obsession with Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology is disastrous for India’s food security and food sovereignty. ….. Dr. Nina Fedoroff, Technology Adviser to Hilary Clinton and the highest official placed US official imposing GMOs on the world is in Delhi to influence the decision.  We are glad that Indian democracy and Indian sovereignty stood strong in face of the U.S. pressure.  It is now time to strengthen our food sovereignty and seed sovereignty.

In the 19-page public release document issued by the minister, he makes several important observations that I shall simply summarise as follows:

  • The use of Bt technology is not the only way to eliminate the usage of pesticides. The risk of usage of pesticides is clear from the case of Bhatinda which has now become cancer afflicted. “How to reduce pesticide usage without compromising food security on a macro level and returns to farmers at a micro level is an urgent policy decision in our agriculture”. He then quotes the case of close to 6 lakh farmers in Andhra Pradesh practicing non-pesticide management (NPM), cultivating an area of more than 20 lakh acres successfully. He further observes that this technique eliminates pesticide usage completely whereas Bt- technology will only reduce the usage.
  • Safety evaluations are of concern as the brinjal plant belongs to the family Solanaceae, and in these toxins may resurface during cultivation. Also it is ‘incontrovertible’ that the safety tests have been carried out by the marketing agency (Monsanto-Mahyco) and not by independent testing agencies and cannot be ignored. Also there is the issue of contamination due to cross-pollination
  • The issue of seed being controlled by international agencies such as Monsanto, whose public perception in India has influenced much of the debate. Although the company has made investments in India and many scientists work here, we must be able to derive maximum benefit from the findings. However, lack of competition in terms of publically funded agriculture agencies has led to monopolistic situations. Mahyco maybe an Indian company but Monsanto has a 25% holding in the company and so it is not really independent.
  • India is the country of origin of Brinjal and the issue of loss of Indigenous species due to gene flow contamination is a risk to biodiversity. We have had this experience in the case of Bt-Cotton where Bt-Cotton has overtaken non- Bt- cotton seeds.
  • The director of the Cotton Research Institute has raised some very pertinent facts about development of resistence to Bt- in pests, the need for baselin data of toxicity of the Cry Protein, Resistence management strategies and the comprehensive reort on the ecology, biology, genetics and population dynamics of the brinjal pests, while affirming his support for the Bt-Technology in general.
  • Doubts raised by eminent Dr. Pushpa Bhargava on the workings of the GEAC itself. Among other things the minister states that a national regulatory authority has been”on the anvil” for 6 years now and the moratorium can be used to finally set up such an authority.
  • Many European countries have banned GM foods and China follows caution in food-crops. Also, China has a strong publically funded Agriculture policy and its Bt-Cotton is indigenously developed.
  • The Cartagena protocol on Biodiversity has been violated by the GEAC.
  • Several International scientists including Dr. Gilles Seriliani, Dr. Sherman, Dr. Andow, Dr. Schubert, Dr, Judy carman and many others, have propsed that this technology may have adverse effects and that the GEAC report does not satisfy queries on safety and efficacy.
  • Dr. N.S.Talekar while supporting the technology has strongly warned against releasing the technology in its current form saying that the “manner in which the proponents of the technology are asking farmers to use it is faulty and unscientific and would lead to disaster.”
  • Dr. Padmanabhan of the Indian Institute of Science makes a strong argument for Bt- commercialization, but calls for a strong statutory body with regulatory authorities and R & D capabilities to govern all aspects of GM crops once released in the country.
  • Toxicity studies long term need to be carried out independently.
  • Indian science-based companies need to be encouraged and more public sector companies too.

These are some salient points; the detailed document can be accessed here.

I would like to commend Mr.Ramesh on not bowing to international pressure and heeding concerned and responsible voices in India and Abroad. The moratorium is necessary and the minister’s assurances to frame a strong regulatory body will go a long way in allowing responsible entry of GM technologies in a manner that will enable us to truly empower our farmers and address pressing issues of food security and self-reliance. So today, we can raise a toast to the due democratic process. Three Cheers to the Brinjal!!!! We can still enjoy our Baingan ka Bharta !!