Why so niggardly about
debating concerns relating to Genetically Modified Foods, Mr. Jairam
The print media has widely
reported the public protests accompanying the first of the seven
consultative meetings to discuss the recent decision of the Genetic
Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to clear commercial cultivation of
Bt Brinjal organized at Kolkata by the minister of state for environment
Jairam Ramesh. A select group of scientists, farmers, activists and
concerned citizens were inside the hall at the Bose Institute. Reportedly,
`some scientists and a few farmers' spoke in favour of the decision but
most of the speakers opposed it and some farmers groups vociferously
challenged the data presented by a couple of scientists. Outside the hall,
however, the protests of large numbers of those excluded from the
deliberations inside the hall continued throughout the duration of the
Jairam Ramesh came out to
reassure them that he is no `agent of Monsanto' because otherwise he would
not have put the issue up for public debate. Unfortunately, he did not
address the cause of public apprehension about the impartiality of what
would be a crucial policy decision - permitting the commercialization of
the first ever genetically modified food crop with the toxin-producing Bt
The GEAC's clearance was
based on the recommendations of its expert sub-committee (EC2), which was
set up only after independent reviews of Mahyco's bio-safety data began
coming in during January 2009. These followed a prolonged RTI struggle and
orders by the Supreme Court in 2008 to make the data publicly accessible.
EC2 had 16 members, of whom five could clearly be said to have a `conflict
of interest' on considering the Mahyco application for commercialization
of Bt brinjal. Prof. Arjula Reddy, the Chairperson of the Committee, in
reply to a question on proof of the safety of Bt brinjal, has been quoted
as follows in Tehelka (vol. 6, No. 44, Nov. 07, 2009) : "What we
require is long-range research done over many years. That does not exist
(for Bt brinjal)." Yet clearance was given because "all the approved
protocols by the government have been fulfilled by the developers and the
public institutions (that participated in the safety assessment)".
Regrettably, the final report of EC2 fails to reflect such candor or
Clearly, the need for
public debate is neither a personal indulgence for which we are obliged
to the minister, nor should it be restricted to a few centres and select
participants. It is a necessary feature, and must be recognized to be so
by government agencies, of a policy aimed at introducing radical
technologies with far-reaching consequences for the Indian people and the
environment. The argument that issues of science and technology are best
left to `expert committees', and that democratic values are ill-informed
intrusions when making developmental choices and determining the
efficiencies of strategies for raising productivity, is outmoded and runs
counter to the experience of many popular movements.
Two recent interactions,
which were both wide-ranging and inclusive, concerning the clearance given
by the GEAC to Bt Brinjal are significant because of the target groups
mobilized and the agency initiating the mobilization.
A group of about 15
students and a couple of teachers from Zakir Husain College, an
under-graduate college of the Delhi University, began to familiarize
themselves with the nature of genetic engineering a couple of months ago.
During an inspiring workshop with geneticist Prof. Antoniou of Imperial
College, London, they entered the fascinating world of the complex
structure of gene functions. The notion of a mechanical nature,
controllable by an over-arching `science' of absolutely predictable
`results' and leaving little room for options, alternatives or controversy
was quickly dispelled. So was the idea of genetic engineering as its
instrumentalist corollary - an isolated one-gene-one-trait precision
technology. Awareness of the unpredictability and power of nature, and of
the foolhardiness of racing towards corporate profits before adequate and
meticulous laboratory research can be completed, resulted from this
workshop and was only strengthened by further study.
This learning process has
now developed, in alliance with Youth for Safe Foods, into an on-going
campaign advocating opposition to Bt Brinjal. Through film shows and
lectures, followed by Q-and-A sessions, and through poster competitions,
large numbers of students have been sensitized and motivated to get
involved in the campaign. Just before the winter vacations, on December
17, 2009, about four hundred students and teachers took a three-hour
long padyatra through the densely populated walled city and interacted
with local residents and shop-keepers. A leaflet in Hindi and Urdu was
distributed and discussed. A street play was performed. It was the first
time that the students had interacted as an institutional collective with
areas adjacent to the college. The experience was so positive on both
sides that the students are now planning visits to specific mohallas in
smaller groups to initiate debate on why we must make the effort to
understand and be active on issues that may appear to be difficult to
comprehend but which impact our lives so directly as consumers.
It was most encouraging to
see how university students, said to be focused these days only on
individual ambitions and financial goals, could become so involved with
issues and values with a wider social significance. Because of this
experience, they saw how the interests of science and of democratizing
choice move forward together, and do not stand in opposition to each
other. A commonality of concerns unites the expert and the lay person.
The students also learnt the value of being well-informed as a crucial
feature of responsible citizenship and the demand of greater
accountability of governments.
Just two weeks later, I
was fortunate enough to participate in an event organized by local
producers emphasizing the need to protect local bio-diversity and oppose
the clearance given for the commercialization of Bt Brinjal. The
Mararikulam North grama panchayat in Allapuzha district of Kerala,
organized the `Mararikulam Brinjal Festival' between December 27, 2001 -
January 3, 2010, which culminated in a national seminar, in collaboration
with All India People's Science Network and Centre for Sustainable
Agriculture, on January 2, 2010.
The panchayat covers eight
thousand families, most of whom are in the BPL category and derive their
income from coconut production, fishing and agriculture on small holdings.
Intrusion of foreign trawlers, and the spread of a root-wilting affliction
in the coconut trees, have combined to severely effect employment and
income. The panchayat leadership promoted, and organizationally and
financially supported, a programme for restoring and increasing vegetable
production through the involvement of every family and women's groups,
using eco-friendly cultivation methods, including integrated pest
management systems. Several indigenous brinjal varieties and a specially
popular local brinjal, dubbed the maririkulam brinjal, occupy pride of
place in this successful project. A brinjal nursery and seed bank of these
varieties is maintained under the NREGS scheme. The clearance given to the
Bt Brinjal poses a direct threat to this very successful strategy for
income generation and environment rejuvenation and practical concerns
formed the strongest motivation for the panchayat's decision to organize
the festival and name it after a popular local variety of brinjal. The
initiative was strongly supported by local MLA and state Finance Minister,
Dr. Thomas Issac, who has conceived and implemented significant strategies
for enhancing the role of panchayats as institutions of local
Conceived as a big event
to inform and mobilize public opinion on the issue, the festival was
preceded by widespread campaigns throughout the panchayat. Large
exhibition pandals at the venue displayed specimens of the regions rich
agro-bio-diversity and show-cased methods of sustainable agriculture.
Cultural programmes and a documentary film festival created a lively
atmosphere of imaginative interaction and debate. The response was
overwhelming. Over a lakh people participated in the event over several
days. Daily, groups from all over the state and from all its educational
institutions could be seen taking part in the `panchayat tours' to examine
and learn from the Mararikulam projects.
The day-long national
seminar brought the popular movement face-to-face with experts from the
sciences and the social sciences. The interaction was marked by its
quality. The participants, present in large number, were attentive and
keenly questioned speakers. Speakers, among them eminent scientist Prof.
P.M. Bhargava who delivered the inaugural address, represented a wide
variety of scientific, economic and sociological opinion, ensuring lively
debates and exchange of ideas. The statement adopted by the participants
of the seminar endorsed the stand of the panchayat that it was "not
opposed to the science of bio-technology and genetic engineering, a very
important component of ongoing advance in science and technology".
However, it strongly supported and recognized the validity of "the
concerns expressed by the grama panchayat, its farmers and women's groups
with respect to the commercial introduction of Bt Brinjal". Reflecting the
opinions voiced during the day-long deliberations, the statement flagged
the following issues:
to local bio-diversity and breeds, to organic farming practices, and the
creation of monopolies of multi-national corporations like Monsanto/
Mahyco over seed and agricultural inputs. Bio-safety issues were also
focused as Ayurvedic physicians of Kerala warned of the loss of medicinal
value of Bt brinjal.
precautionary principle of ensuring adequate long-term and short-term
laboratory tests by independent agencies, has been severely compromised in
the case of Bt Brinjal as not only the tests, which are conducted by MNC's,
but even the regulatory mechanism, have been directly influenced and
determined to accommodate corporate interests. Further rules for field
trials continue to be violated by MNC's despite protests by the concerned
body of scientific evidence with regard to adverse health and
environmental impact of Bt Brinjal deserves recognition and GEAC's evasive
and dismissive responses are unacceptable.
India is a
centre of origin for brinjal with over 400 varieties. Internationally, GM
species are not promoted in such countries.
serious misgivings over the contractual relationship between MNC's
Monsanto/ Mahyco and the Indian research institutes involved with regard
to intellectual property rights. Given the escalating and exhorbitant
costs of royalty for Bt Cotton seeds, this too is a matter of concern.
percent of the member nations of the UN do not permit the use of GM foods.
This should not only alert policy makers, but also make them consider that
introduction of GM foods would adversely impact the country's exports.
The statement therefore
demanded that there should be
on commercial introduction of GM foods till "the government set up a
creditable and transparent institutional structure for undertaking longer
and medium term laboratory and field studies."
a cadre of
scientists trained in bio-safety assessment must be established.
and concerns of small farmers in different agro-economic zones should form
an integral part of any competent evaluation of transgenic crops and other
strategies for development of agriculture.
Ramesh has reportedly stated that the government's decision on the GEAC's
recommendation will be taken after the seven consultative meetings are
over. All the meetings held so far have met with protests, as much against
the decision as against the manner in which public debate is sought to be
confined. If the experience of the two decentralized and popularly
constituted `consultations' that I have had the benefit of being a part
of, are to be learnt from, then the Minister should use his resources to
throw open the debate to wider sections and take the time to hear what
people have to say. The decision to introduce GM foods commercially is
far-reaching and would have an enormous impact on the health of the people
and on the environment. Any hasty decisions following a few consultations
confined to select participants would not absolve the Minister, or the
government of which he is a part, of the charge of being, as he so
colorfully put it, "an agent of Monsanto".
Author Madhu Prasad, prod
of Philosophy, Zakir Hussain College. New Delhi