By Mira Shiva

In 2002, Bt Cotton became India's first genetically modified crop when the country's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee approved three varieties developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company Limited (Mahyco) in collaboration with Monsanto. Genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium, were introduced along with an antibiotic resistant marker gene and cauliflower mosaic virus gene to enhance expression of the Bt gene.

Monsanto and Mahyco (of which Monsanto owns a 26% stake) made tremendous profits while hiking up the price of cotton seeds to over 500 times what farmers used to pay, from Rs. 7/kg to Rs. 3600/kg ($0.14/kg to $74/kg). Nearly half of this came from royalty payments. The companies were collecting around 10 billion rupees (over $200 million) per year in royalty payments from Indian farmers before the government of Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeast India, sued Monsanto, leading to a cap on the price of cotton seeds.

Andhra Pradesh saw problems beyond seed prices. Farmers who had commonly grazed their animals on cotton fields after harvest reported losing 25% of the sheep that grazed on leftover Bt cotton plants. In 2006, shepherds in the village of Ippagudem lost 651 of their 2,601 sheep; in the village of Valeru, they lost 549 of 2,168.[1] The corporations and authorities denied any connection to the animal deaths.

They also denied any connection to the rash of farmer suicides in India. Since the introduction of Bt cotton, tens of thousands of farmers have committed suicide-17,368 in 2009 alone.[2] A disproportionate number of those farmers were cultivators of Bt cotton who had incurred enormous debt linked to high costs of seeds, as well as the fertilizers and pesticides promoted by Monsanto and Mahyco as a necessity in order to grow the new cotton varieties. Vastly increased costs of production, high interest rates for credit, and low cotton prices have created unprecedented levels of debt for Indian cotton farmers. With the indebtedness came humiliation for proud farmers who have for generations managed life and work with dignity; driving farmers to find any way out. For some, this has meant selling a kidney; for many others, suicide.

Cotton farmers have little choice but to grow Bt varieties. As non-Bt seeds have been systematically made unavailable, 95% of the cotton being cultivated in India now comes from Bt seeds. Through licensing arrangements with seed companies across India's cotton belt, Mahyco has ensured that seed dealers sell only Bt cotton seeds.

Next up: food crops

While Bt cotton is now entrenched in India, Monsanto and Mahyco have set their sights on what would be the first genetically modified food crop in India, Bt brinjal. Brinjal (known elsewhere as eggplant or aubergine) was first cultivated in India, and today there are 4,000 different varieties in the country, each linked with different regional recipes. The crop is not in short supply, so Monsanto and Mahyco's introduction of Bt brinjal was seen with much concern. It was thanks to the outcry at public hearings that the Indian government placed a hold on Bt brinjal approval.

Serious concerns have been raised about Mahyco's biosafety studies on its Bt brinjal. The trials centered around rat feeding studies lasting a mere 90 days. The study stopped at one generation, neglecting to assess effects on fertility and progeny. Nevertheless, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee quickly decided to approve the crop. The GEAC's enthusiasm for genetically modified crops was not limited to Bt brinjal; in one meeting, it cleared 10 different food crops for 91 field trials.[3]

Other genetically modified food crops lined up for trials in India include papaya, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, groundnuts, mustard, cabbage and pigeon peas. GM rice trials were planned in Chattisgarh, home of the country's richest biodiversity of rice varieties, but were stalled by the regional government following protests.

Federal push for GMOs

Protests and actions against the unhindered commercialization of genetically modified crops have come from public outcry and local governments. In the federal government, India's biotechnology regulators are, to say the least, corporate-friendly. A bill currently awaiting passage in the parliament, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, not only creates a new agency (the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India) with more leeway to speedily approve GMOs, but also imposes fines and even jail sentences for those who mislead the public about the safety of GMOs. This provision was targeted not at biotech companies-as one might think-but at the opponents of genetically modified crops.

In 2004, India announced a new Seed Bill making 'unregistered seeds' illegal. While ostensibly protecting farmers against unscrupulous seed dealers, the act does not provide any new protections or compensations for farmers, aside from punishments for those selling unregistered seeds. Rather, it threatens small farmers' way of life, making it illegal for them to sell their own seeds to each other, although they have saved and shared their seeds for generations.

The Act sells farmers out under the guise of protecting them. Its main beneficiaries are private seed companies, transnational corporations in particular. In other words, it is exactly what one has come to expect of the biotechnology interest in Indian government.

Dr. Mira Shiva, MD, is a medical doctor and public health activist in India. She has tackled issues of health care access, misuse of medicines, and medical technology for the past 30 years. Dr. Shiva is Director of the Initiative for Health, Equity & Society and is affiliated with Doctors for Food and Biosafety, Task Force on Safety of Food and Medicine, and numerous other public health organizations.






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Created in 1999 by the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Safe Seed Pledge helps to connect non-GM seed sellers,distributors and traders to the growing market of concerned gardeners and agricultural consumers. The Pledge allows businesses and individuals to declare that they "do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds," thus assuring consumers of their commitment.
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