Response to Expert Committee on Bt brinjal - Kavitha Kuruganti - Part IV
There are many issues that had not been mandated to be debated by the EC2 which need to be resolved and should have been, at least by the apex regulatory body before it cleared Bt Brinjal for India. After all, our regulatory regime is supposed to have enshrined the Precautionary Principle as a cornerstone by virtue of India being a signatory to the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol. This approach is technically and legally valid in the case of technologies such as GMOs in our food and farming. Some of these issues are discussed below, left untouched or even ignored despite evidence, by the EC2 and the GEAC.
i. Pest management and pesticide-related issues with Brinjal Most brinjal cultivators in India are not cultivators with intensive farming practices and the pesticide use claims on Brinjal being to an extent of 84 sprays (that too, data from Bangladesh!) is very exaggerated. True, in those pockets where vegetable cultivation is in an intensive fashion, there may be numerous sprays of pesticides to control the FSB and this kind of high pesticide usage obviously has implications for the ecology, farm economics and on other fronts like health. However, exaggerated projections of pesticide use should not form the basis for decision-making. It should be recalled that before the advent of Bt Cotton, the rationale applied was that around 55% of India’s pesticide consumption was on Cotton crop alone and that pest management strategies like Bt Cotton were essential to bring down insecticide usage being targeted at the bollworm complex. Claims were made at that time that 60% of the pesticide usage on cotton was to control the bollworm complex. Bt Cotton was proffered as a solution and if projections were right, India’s pesticide consumption should have come down by at least 35%. However, the figures of pesticide consumption do not reflect this either in volume and value. The same arguments are being offered for justifying Bt Brinjal and claims of high pesticide usage which are being projected as the average for all Brinjal farmers across the country are highly questionable.
ii. Alternatives available for pest management in Brinjal: there are highly successful, sustainable, affordable and farmer-controlled pest management alternatives available for pest control in Brinjal and these alternative practices are in fact holistic and do not necessarily tackle pests in a linear, reductionist fashion, pest by pest. When such alternatives exist both within the NARS system and with practicing farmers, there is really no need for Bt Brinjal as a solution. As the Supreme Court nominee to GEAC had recommended, the GM option should be picked up only in the absence of alternatives to a given problem. It is also apparent that Bt Brinjal is being compared in various studies against chemical pesticides and being projected as highly beneficial to farmers the framework of analysis itself is obviously very faulty here, comparing one evil with the other so to speak. The Government of India should show the political will of extending and supporting alternative (alternative to GM seeds and synthetic pesticides) ecological technologies to farmers for sustainable livelihoods, as is being done in a government-supported programme called Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture in the state of Andhra Pradesh on lakhs
of acres. Annexure 10 has details on such alternatives.
iii. Experiences with Bt Cotton have many lessons to be learnt: The Bt Cotton cultivation experience in India over the past eight years has many valuable lessons to teach policy makers, regulators, farmers and consumers of the country, if we choose to pick them up in pursuit of sustainable development objectives.
(a) It has been shown time and again that the Bt technology is unpredictable and the very mixed results over years, locations and hybrids are there for everyone to see. In those places where results have been good, deeper analysis points to good seed source (germplasm into which the Bt gene has been backcrossed), good monsoon years, higher inputs in the form of water and nutrients etc. The technology has failed in many areas which are resource-poor in terms of soils, irrigation as well as farmers’
ability to provide inputs.
(b) Pest and disease ecology has changed in cotton in unpredictable ways. Secondary pests are emerging into major pests in several places.
(c) Impacts on soil are being observed and reported by farmers and there is increased use of chemical fertilizers; a senior agriculture scientist of India had predicted that with even a 6% expansion of GM crop land in the country, there would be a doubling of chemical fertilizer demand and this brings its own problems including that of public financing of an unsustainable input.
(d) Stress intolerance is found to be higher on Bt Cotton than on other non-GM cultivars. This has implications for risks and vulnerabilities of our resource-poor farmers.
(e) Bt Cotton has left its impacts on animals which have grazed on the crop residues in different parts of the country including from consumption of Bt Cotton seed cake etc. Animals have either died or fallen sick after consuming Bt Cotton and this phenomenon though acknowledged by some officials, has not been investigated scientifically and systematically by concerned agencies to this day (Annexure 9 is a paper on Bt Cotton and animal morbidity/mortality phenomenon).
(f) Agricultural workers have also reported allergies after working in Bt Cotton fields and media and NGO reports exist from different states about this phenomenon which is also uninvestigated to this day.
(g) On the regulatory front, Bt Cotton has repeatedly showcased the regulatory incapabilities of India, right from the time that illegal proliferation of unapproved Bt Cotton was first noticed in 2001. Regulatory failures were not just on the biosafety front but in terms of monitoring, reviewing, transparent and scientific decision making and so on. (h) State governments also found out through the tough way that there are no legal mechanisms available to them to regulate seed marketing, seed advertising, seed pricing and for liability and redressal for failures. All the above points are still pending, so to speak and would raise their ugly head in the case of Bt Brinjal too. It is very unwise to move into an edible crop, that too a first-of-its-kind in the world and an unneeded product to boot, without learning lessons from the Bt Cotton experience.
iv. IPRs on Bt Brinjal and farmers’ rights: Even without any legally protected rights in the case of Bt Cotton, state governments and farmers and even Indian seed companies had to contend with the monopolistic behaviour of MNCs like Monsanto and their Indian partner as most other seed varieties got edged out of the market, as farmers lost their own seed stocks rapidly and as prices were fixed at exorbitant levels leading to many farmers getting into deeper distress and even committing suicides. The issues are going to get murkier with Bt Brinjal including an outright violation of farmers’ rights over their germplasm and so on. The technology of Bt Brinjal supposedly belongs to Monsanto, as references here and there reveal. Mahyco is also supposed to have obtained a patent on the “Event” EE1 in Bt Brinjal. Further, public sector universities have parted with their germplasm, with the initial varieties obviously belonging to some farming community or the other, to develop Bt Brinjal varieties in a consortium project called ABSPII. In all of this, it is not clear who has the authority to regulate seed sales, pricing and royalty issues, who is claiming ownership and how on the germplasm that belongs to farmers that the public sector then developed into Bt Brinjal varieties and it is not clear who owns the Bt Brinjal varieties!! Annexure 11 is an article on these complicated issues and serious concerns around seed monopolies, violation of farmers’ rights and rapid erosion of seed stocks with farmers etc., are yet to be addressed in any meaningful way by policy makers or regulators.
v. Bt Brinjal and Indian Systems of Medicine: Brinjal and related species are used extensively in Ayurveda and other Indian Systems of Medicine. Despite several efforts to get the regulators to look at a more comprehensive impact assessment regime, various stakeholders have failed to get the regulators to take this matter seriously. No impact assessment has been taken up to understand the implications and impacts of Bt Brinjal on Indian Systems of Medicine and this is a matter of grave concern. This could have implications not just in terms of a medicine becoming ineffective but potentially even toxic!
vi. Bt Brinjal and rights of farmers who wish to remain GM-Free and/or organic: The onus of remaining GM-Free and/or organic is obviously not with the ones who wish to be so since the origin of the problem lies with decision-making elsewhere. Any approval given to Bt Brinjal cultivation in the country will potentially violate the rights of those farmers who want to be GM-Free and/or organic and no attention has been paid in the regulatory decision-making processes to issues such as this so far. The EC2 has callously asked such farmers to follow isolation distances etc., but it is not clear why the burden should fall on these farmers who have chosen
sustainable pathways of development.
vii. Rights of states which wish to remain GM-Free: There are several state governments, which as per the policies adopted at the state level, wish to ban and disallow Bt Brinjal in their respective states. However, there are many practical issues to be addressed as borders with other states are porous and seeds can travel from one place to the other. As per the Constitution of India, Agriculture and Health are state subjects and any decision at the Centre that allows Bt Brinjal anywhere in India violates the authority and rights of those states which choose to remain Bt Brinjal-free.
viii. Consumer rights and choices violated: If Bt Brinjal is approved in India, the rights of consumers to choose what they would like to consume would be violated irreversibly. This is simply not acceptable. On the other hand, a labeling regime is practically impossible to implement for a vegetable crop in a country like India and is no solution for this problem.
ix. No Liability, Redressal and Remediation regime in place: Even as GEAC cleared Bt Brinjal for commercial cultivation in the country, it should be noted that no liability, redressal and remediation regime exists in India. Who is to be accountable, by what mechanism, for how much and in what conditions, for things going wrong? It is unconceivable that the regulators have cleared an edible GM crop with the Bt gene in it without resolving this basic issue and putting a sound liability, redressal and remediation regime in place.
GIVEN ALL THE ABOVE, IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT THE GOVERNMENT WITHDRAW THE BT BRINJAL EC2 REPORT AND REJECT ANY APPLICATION FOR COMMERCIALISATION OF BT BRINJAL IN INDIA. IN FACT, THE ABOVE FACTS POINT TOWARDS AN URGENT NEED TO STOP ALL OPEN AIR TRIALS OF GM CROPS IN THIS COUNTRY AND TO A NEED TO CREATE A DEMOCRATIC, TRANSPARENT AND SCIENTIFIC PROCESSES DRIVEN WITH A VISION FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT THROUGH WHICH REAL, LASTING SOLUTIONS CAN BE ESTABLISHED IN INDIAN FARMING AND FOOD SYSTEMS. SUCH PROCESSES SHOULD LEAD TO COMMUNITY-CENTRED AND COMMUNITY-LED SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE SYSTEMS, WITH APPROPRIATE SUPPORT STRUCTURES AND SYSTEMS CREATED BY THE
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AS SEPARATE ANNEXURES, OTHER REFERENCES AND MATERIALS RELATED TO SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVES, ON HORIZONTAL GENE TRANSFER, ON CROSSABILITY, ON GENETIC INSTABILITY IN TRANSGENICS ETC., ARE BEING PROVIDED.
NEWS STORIES ON THE EXPERT COMMITTEE, ITS PROCESSES AND STORIES AROUND
INTERVIEWS WITH EC2 CHAIR/MEMBERS:
1. “Bt brinjal clearance ignored dissenters?”
2. “Green Signal for Bt Brinjal”
3. “Bt Brinjals in markets near you” (Audio recording of Dr. Bhargava's interview with Down To Earth):
4. “How Bt Brinjal was cleared” Down to Earth article on the EC2
5. “Bt Brinjal tests inadequate How safe is it”
6. “Controversy continues over Bt Brinjal approval”
7. “New twist of controversy over commercial release of Bt Brinjal”