High time India wakes up to the dangers of field trials of GM crops
By TSR Subramanian | Published: 23rd June 2013 12:00 AM |
In the past fortnight, three international events of major significance have gone unnoticed in India. About 20 lakh people, in 52 countries of six continents, including 48 US states, took part in a peaceful but symbolically important ‘March Against Monsanto’—to protest the reckless proliferation of genetically modified (GM) food items. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent an unusually strong message to President Obama expressing ‘extreme outrage’ at the support being given to global seed and plant bio-genetic MNCs Syngenta and Monsanto—and in a rare display of diplomatic anger nearly refused to meet the visiting US Secretary of State. About the same time, GM wheat ‘volunteers’ were found growing in Oregon, US—GM wheat is not approved for planting in US; this could be a potential disaster for US farmers. It is astonishing that our media has not picked up these extraordinarily significant international developments, which could have major consequences in India, indeed to mankind. It is important to note that all these three events have a common name to connect them—Monsanto.
Putin’s concerns relate to the widely prevalent use of a class of “neuro-active insecticides ‘neo-nicotinoids’ by chemical giants, including Monsanto, Bayer and Dow.” Quoting a technical report, he cited ‘undisputed evidence’ that these are destroying our planet’s bee population, and left unchecked could destroy the world’s ability to feed its population. In Europe, in general, all GM crops are banned. Consumer rights groups in the US recently highlighted the “US State Department strategy to foist ‘pro-biotech’ policies on foreign governments”, especially to encourage field trials in developing countries. Clearly, India has been identified as a convenient ‘guinea pig’.
The issue of ‘open field trials’ of GM crops is right now in our apex court; the major protests against introduction of GM brinjal in India in 2010 would be recalled. Enormous US government pressure, also by Monsanto, applied on weak regulators, through a complicit agriculture ministry, was used to push it through. We were rescued at the last moment. Massive civil society response, and appeals to then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who heeded the anguish and sense of foreboding, postponed indefinitely the field trials, till it was independently established that BT brinjal is safe. Did he lose his job, and get shunted to the rural development ministry (perceived as less important in status) as a punishment? In a clear vindication, in August 2012, the Sopory Committee Report (initiated by ICAR, our apex agriculture institution), in the context of commercial release of ‘desi’ Bt cotton, had commented in unambiguous terms of ‘regulatory collapse’ and conflict of interest, which have permeated our regulatory institutions relating to GM crops.
The Supreme Court had, in a significant step, established an expert committee, the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) to advise it in the matter of open field trials. This committee, given ToR and membership approved by the Ministry of Environment & Forests, has submitted its interim report to the Supreme Court in October 2012. This matter is pending finalisation in the court. The TEC, in a consensus report of all five members, has referred to the ‘essential irreversibility’ of contamination from field trials, and has made 11 specific recommendations to regulate the development and commercialisation of GM crops in India—these have been endorsed as scientifically fully valid and sound by a group of 51 independent and internationally eminent scientists from all over the world, who command a high degree of knowledge and expertise.
Meanwhile, apparently the environment ministry has now opposed its own TEC’s interim report, most likely on pressure from PMO. It is now anxious to induct one additional member to join the TEC, with strong potential conflict of interest—at this late stage, to engineer a ‘favourable’ point of view by the TEC. There is simultaneously a move to introduce surreptitiously in the Lok Sabha the Biotechnology Regulatory Act of India (BRAI) with a single-window clearance concept. This is obviously a Bill to foster and promote GM crops, particularly when the TEC report is ready, under consideration in the apex court, and when the potential consequences are grave. One wonders whose side the Government of India works for?
The nation is aware of the ability of Western countries, especially the US, as well as powerful MNCs to put enormous pressure on our political executive, which apparently is easily susceptible in this regard. We have seen how the country has succumbed in the case of the ‘Nuclear Liability Act’ and ‘FDI in retail’—both are time bombs, which will work their way into our economy, agriculture and society over the medium and long-term, with possibility of immense adverse consequences. The issue of GM crops, particularly those that will enter the food chain, is altogether in a higher plane of danger and catastrophe potential.
The issue is not one of blocking new technology, or not allowing technology advances to come to benefit of mankind. The matter is one of taking sensible precautions, indeed being absolutely sure that any new technology should not eventually have irreversible major consequences. As usual we are now dependent on the wisdom of our apex court, which has come to our aid ever so often—sadly we cannot trust our own government or its intentions.
Subramanian is a former Cabinet Secretary