By Debbie Barker

"A 'No' uttered from the deepest conviction..."


In response to the resounding "No" uttered across India, Minister of the Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh announced a moratorium on the commercialization of Bt brinjal on February 9, 2010.  The moratorium on genetically engineered (GE) eggplant has since been extended indefinitely.  Minister Ramesh stated: "It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach... till such time as independent scientific studies establish to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals the safety of the product."

The Minister made his announcement after a series of public hearings in seven Indian states that would be most directly affected by Bt brinjal crops and after a consultation process with scientists, agricultural experts, farmers' organizations, consumer groups, and "serious-minded" non-governmental organizations.

Navdanya, an NGO founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva over two decades ago that organized major farmer and civil society resistance to Bt brinjal commercialization, hailed the decision "as a victory for Indian democracy."

The debate over Bt brinjal engaged the attention of people from all walks of life and captured almost daily headlines in newspapers throughout India.  Brinjal is a crop and food eliciting particular pride in India.  Not only is India the largest producer of brinjal (according to a statement by Minister Ramesh), but it is also the crop's country of origin and boasts thousands of varieties that have been cultivated over centuries. 

The potential threat to this spectacular diversity posed by Bt brinjal was one of the central arguments against commercialization.  Brinjal is largely a cross-pollinated crop, which makes the threat of contamination particularly worrisome.  Even Indian scientists that support GE technology expressed grave concern about the potential for contamination and the fact that no independent research or trials had been carried out to either verify or refute Bt brinjal developers' guidelines for preventing contamination.    

In a rather astounding concession that Bt brinjal would contaminate existing traditional varieties, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, one of India's architects of the Green Revolution now heading a research center working on GE technology, urged that India collect and conserve its existing varieties "before we permit the extinction of the gifts of thousands of years of natural evolution and human selection." 

The series of public hearings were occasions of enthusiastic opposition for thousands of farmers, civil society organizations, consumer groups, scientists, and state government officials.  

In addition to their worries about potential contamination to existing brinjal crops, many farmers also expressed concern over claims that the Bt gene would reduce pests and insecticide use. Bt Brinjal is a genetically engineered crop created by inserting a gene (Cry 1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringenisis (Bt) into brinjal.   According to its proponents, the gene makes the plant resistant to the typical pests that attack the fruit.

However, due to Indian farmers' experience with Bt cotton, many farmers' organizations as well as scientists and state government agencies are finding that the Bt gene has proved to be an unreliable method of pest control and can lead to increased use of chemicals in order to combat increased pest resistance.   In contrast, they point to the success of non-pesticide management (NPM) systems as a way to reduce pesticide use without compromising food security or profit for farmers.   For example, almost 600,000 farmers in the state of Andhra Pradesh practice NPM agriculture with such positive results that other state agriculture ministers in India are asking to replicate this model on a larger scale.

Why Bt Brinjal?

Farmers also expressed concern over questions of Bt seed ownership and how this could potentially disrupt incomes of small and medium-sized farms.  They are not eager to replace seeds that they now often freely save and exchange among themselves for a system of purchasing commercial seeds and pesticides.  Farmers stated that adoption of Bt brinjal would create a system of dependency on corporations that developed and own the patents on these materials-Monsanto U.S.  and Mahyco, an Indian company of which 26 percent is owned by Monsanto.

As numerous concerns were voiced, the question that came up in the debates and hearings over and over again was:  What is the apparent urgency for approving Bt brinjal?  Farmers and others, including Minister Ramesh, pointed out that there is no pressing reason to introduce Bt brinjal.  There is no brinjal pest crisis, yield crisis, or farmer income crisis.  To borrow from a U.S. expression, farmers in India were essentially saying, "Don't fix what ain't broke."

Other issues were raised at the public hearings and during the consultation process.  Public health and safety concerns were repeatedly cited, especially because Bt brinjal would be the first GE vegetable in India to be directly consumed by human beings.  Scientists pointed out that the plant family solanaceae to which brinjal belongs contains several natural toxins that can resurface when metabolism is disturbed.  Both the director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research and the drug controller to the government of India recommended that chronic toxicity and other associated tests should be carried out by independent bodies instead of simply relying on the data generated by the companies that developed Bt brinjal.

Additionally, the ayurvedic, siddha, homeopathy, and unani medical community expressed concern that Bt brinjal would destroy medicinal properties used in these alternative medicine practices due to loss of synergy, differences in the alkaloids, and changes in other active principles. 

Politics and Intrigue

In the midst of the raging debate, politics and intrigue intensified.  Days before the critical announcement of whether or not Bt brinjal would be approved for commercialization, two Italian agriculture experts known for their opposition to GE crops were denied visas to attend a conference on GE crops and food held in New Delhi.  Maria Grazia Mammucini, director of the agricultural research agency of the Region of Tuscany and the founder of the GMO-free regional government network in Europe, and Professor Marcello Buiatti, a member of the Network of Independent Scientists of Europe whose research has been instrumental in GMO bans in Europe, were told by the Indian embassy in Rome that they needed clearance from the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies, a highly unusual procedure.

Despite the overwhelming opposition to Bt brinjal from farmers, the medical community, scientists, civil society, and state governments, including 12 state ministers stating they will not allow the crop in their regions, key Indian government officials are moving on all fronts to reverse Minister Ramesh's moratorium and commercialize Bt brinjal.

The most vociferous opposition to the moratorium is from Indian Minister of Agriculture Sharad Pawar.  In addition, some powerful U.S. officials, including Dr. Nina Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, continue to urge the Indian government to adopt Bt brinjal. 

One response by GE advocates has been to introduce a new legal authority-the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI).  One of the most astonishing elements of the new law calls for arrests and fining of individuals that "mislead the public" about GE products.  Article 63 of the BRAI states:

"Whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of the organizations and products specified in..., shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to one year and with fines which may extend to two lakh rupees or both."

This proposed law has caused obvious alarm.  "Never in India's history has such a draconian provision been mooted," said Pushpa Mohan Bhargava, founder and former director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology.  "Who is to decide what evidence is scientific or not? It will gag any opposition or criticism."

Dr. Vandana Shiva observed:  "It is becoming increasingly clear that GE crops and foods can only spread through such fascism.  We have to make a choice: Either we will have food dictatorship in which the biotech industry imposes toxic and unsafe GE foods on us or we will stay GE free and defend our food freedom."

Debbie Barker is the international director of the Center for Food Safety, based in Washington, D.C. Ms. Barker was in India in February 2010 prior to and after the announcement of the moratorium.

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