Bt brinjal and the politics of knowledge
2.Bt brinjal and the politics of knowledge
NOTE: The Bt brinjal debate is generating some excellent articles. Here are two more.
1.Indian farmers organise to stop Bt brinjal
Seedling, January 2010
Update: On 9 February 2010, in response to the widespread concern expressed by the public and some scientists, Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests, announced an indefinite moratorium on the release of Bt-brinjal.
On 14 October 2009 an Indian governmental agency the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), part of the Environment Ministry gave its approval for the environmental release of Bt brinjal.  This means that the crop is considered safe for use in an open space, which includes planting on a commercial scale. Its decision followed lobbying by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco), Monsanto's partner in India, which has been largely responsible for the development of Bt brinjal. Shortly before GEAC announced its decision, Mahyco's managing director, Raju Barware, said on the company's website: "We look forward to a positive decision because it will help millions of our brinjal farmers who have been suffering from the havoc caused by the brinjal fruit and shoot borer (BFSB)". He also claimed that Bt brinjal "has the same nutritional value and is compositionally identical to non-Bt brinjal, except for the additional Bt protein which is specific in its action
against the BFSB”. This mirrors the US Department of Agriculture's official stand that genetically modified (GM) crops are substantially equivalent to natural non-GM crops.
Bt brinjal would be the first genetically engineered food crop to be approved for commercial cultivation in India, and the government sees it as the first of many. “In the near future we expect many GM crops that have been modified for better availability of vitamins, iron, micronutrients, quality proteins and oils, which would secure nutritional security to the masses”, said Minister of State for Agriculture, K.V. Thomas. The importance of this first authorisation was not lost on farmers’ and consumers’ organisations, along with a wide spectrum of other groups, who immediately organised protests. Faced with this reaction, the Environment Ministry decided just a day after the go-ahead to put the decision on hold for several months. It gave organisations until 31 December 2009 to comment on the report of the expert committee, which formed the basis of the GEAC’s decision,  and it has said that it will consult “all stakeholders”,  including scientists, agriculture
experts, farmers’ organisations, consumer groups and NGOs, in January and February 2010.
Groups are lobbying strongly to force the Indian government to reverse its decision permanently. According to G. Nammalvar from Vanagam, a non-profit-making organisation in Tamil Nadu that campaigns in favour of ecological farming, “there is no necessity for the introduction of a Bt brinjal in India, which holds the merit of having huge biodiversity. We have 2,500 traditional brinjal varieties in India. Every community is used to consuming a particular variety, i.e. locally produced. Introduction of Bt brinjal with false claims for its advantages will contaminate the local varieties and erode the biodiversity of the vegetable that is consumed by millions.” He says that environmental activists, women’s collectives, consumers’ movements, farmers’ associations and traders’ associations would join together to resist the introduction of Bt brinjal in Tamil Nadu.
His voice of protest has been echoed across the country. On 7 November 2009 a conference on genetic engineering, farming and food, held in Mysore, called on the state government to declare Karnataka a GM-free region. “We do not want GM crops which can prove apocalyptic for mankind”, declared the conference statement. “Let us say never to Bt brinjal.” In Trivandrum on 3 December groups organised a Brinjal Festival with, among other activities, a display of local brinjal varieties from the farmers of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. A seven-day festival was held elsewhere in Kerala from 27 December to create awareness of the dangers of Bt brinjal. Over 50 scientists and about 100 delegates from various universities and scientific institutions across the country, besides farmers, policy-makers and representatives of government and non-governmental organisations, participated. Farmers’ groups are also threatening to take “direct action” if the government goes ahead with
Meanwhile, at national level, a legal battle is pending before the Supreme Court of India, in which the petitioners are demanding a ban on the release of any GM crops until adequate scientific testing has been carried out and a credible biosafety regulatory system has been put in place. At the same time the government is proposing to set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority to oversee the testing of biotech crops. Department of Biotechnology Director S.R. Rao said that this will make sure that biotech policies are “based on scientific assessments of risk and not on any sloganeering and campaigning by public interest groups”.
Mahyco was the first company to sell genetically engineered Bt cotton Bollgard in 2002, and it has faced constant criticism since then. This time it has acted more cautiously and will not itself be selling the GM seeds directly. The promoters of the technology have deftly packaged the release of this Bt crop as an output of a public private partnership. The partnership designed by the US government, funded by the USAID and led by Cornell University comprises Mahyco Hybrid Seed Company Ltd, Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU) in Coimbatore, the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Dharwad, and the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research in Varanasi. USAID’s Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II is supporting Mahyco’s efforts to gain regulatory approval for the technology.
Many aspects of the development of Bt brinjal are shrouded in mystery, and activists are using Right to Information legislation to try and untangle the complex sequence of events. It is clear that the process started with Mahyco using Monsanto-licensed technology to genetically modify brinjal in its lab in India. The GM brinjal was then crossed with “material” from TNAU . One material transfer agreement (MTA), signed between TNAU and Mahyco, clearly states that “TNAU has supplied to MHSCL [Mahyco] eggplant germplasm developed, owned, controlled and/or in-licensed by TNAU”.
Indian farmers have good reason to be particularly concerned about this. They have for years in good faith allowed scientists to gather genetic material from their crops and store it in agricultural universities and research institutes. All this cross-sector, transborder and cross-institute movement of plant material is making many ask some very fundamental questions: to whom do seed and crop materials really belong? Does the public sector National Agricultural Research System (NARS), entrusted with farmers’ varieties, have the power to pass on the material to private corporations? And even if there is acknowledgement of the years of local farming knowledge behind the folk varieties of brinjal by sharing any “benefits”, can the loss of pure, natural, genetically untampered-with indigenous varieties be reversed or recompensed? Most of all, can large corporations backed by their governments be allowed to take over farming?
There was also a series of “transfers” and “approvals”, which happened with characteristic lack of transparency. In 2007, India’s National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), which became the main decision-making authority under India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002, gave clearance to Mahyco to import parental lines from Bangladesh and then to send back the material to East West Seeds Bangladesh Ltd for seed distribution. The company has operations in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. In other words, the NBA actually authorised a multinational company to use Indian germplasm to develop a GM product that would not only be used in India but also exported to India’s neighbours, endangering Asia’s biodiversity.
Some farmers believe that Mahyco’s offer to “provide the technology free of cost” to the NARS is nothing less than a ploy by the GM industry to penetrate the NARS and to leave farmers with little option but accept Mahyco’s products. For all the talk of the benefits of Bt brinjal, farmers clearly see that the introduction of this first GM food crop would start a process that would seriously jeopardise India’s food and farm systems and the biodiversity that sustains them. They are determined to struggle against it.
1”ƒIn other parts of the English-speaking world, brinjal is known as aubergine or eggplant.
2.Bt brinjal and the politics of knowledge
Rediff, February 15 2010
A moratorium on Bt brinjal is good. But it can still turn toxic if any one technology is pushed at the cost of a multi-dimensional approach to securing our food future, says Rajni Bakshi.
Eight years ago Bob Watson, the senior scientific advisor of the World Bank, found himself standing between two bitter opponents.
On the one side were executives of major seed and pesticide companies with their demands for a World Bank strategy that would promote biotechnology. On the other side were civil society organisations asking for a comprehensive development strategy to ensure food security.
Watson responded to this tussle by joining hands with the United Nations Development Progam, World Health Organization and other UN agencies to set up a uniquely democratic multi-stakeholder process to study what agricultural technologies will enable every person on earth to be well fed.
That investigation, completed in 2008, should have saved India's [ Images ] Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh [ Images ] from being caught in the crossfire over Bt brinjal.
Instead, confusion and conflict over our food future has intensified over the last few years. Why?
Clearly there is much more at stake here than a choice between over 98 varieties of our freely available native baingan and one genetically modified version promoted by a multinational company.
This is a battle about the politics of knowledge.
For about six decades private companies, governments and international food experts have focussed on increasing the volume of food production. Thus, any technology that gave higher output was deemed to be progress and those who challenged its side-effects or proposed alternatives which could produce as much or more at lower ecological and social costs were denounced as being regressive.
The rival approach, which emphasised actual per capita nutritional intake and ecological sustainability of agricultural technology, was marginalised.
When Watson and others brought warring parties to one table for the International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology (IAASTD), they made a radical departure by giving at least equal weight to the second approach.
This global team of 400 experts from different fields, including social scientists, went on to challenge the conventional gatekeepers of agricultural knowledge.
The final report of the IAASTD concluded that the business-as-usual model of prevailing industrial agriculture cannot meet the food needs of the 9 billion who are expected to inhabit Planet Earth within a few decades.
In particular the IAASTD report emphasised that food security requires a multi-functional approach to agriculture and ownership structures -- particularly protecting local knowledge systems that have been passed on from one generation to the other over millennia.
Focussing on increasing per acre production in the short run will not secure our food future.
So where's the catch? Monsanto's representatives attended early meetings but the company chose not to join the assessment process. Another major private sector stake holder, Syngenta, joined the process but resigned a few months before the report was finalised.
BASF and Unilever, among other companies, joined and are signatories to the final report. While the governments of 58 countries -- including Brazil [ Images ], China, France [ Images ], India, Iran and UK -- endorsed the report, the governments of the United States of America, Australia [ Images ] and Canada [ Images ] refused.
This is partly because the IAASTD concluded that there is insufficient empirical evidence that genetically modified crops produce substantially higher yields.
Some private sector proponents of biotechnology declared the IAASTD findings on biotech to be over-cautious and unbalanced.
But there were even deeper disagreements on how knowledge is produced and owned. For instance, the IAASTD's final report cautioned that if governments give more prominence to biotechnology, especially genetic engineering, this may consolidate the biotech industry's dominance of agricultural R&D.
This, in turn, could distort the content and direction of agricultural science, and affect graduate education and training, thus providing fewer opportunities for scientists to explore other branches of agricultural knowledge, science and technology that need to be explored.
Thus the IAASTD called for increases in public R & D to favour a diversity of approaches and to ensure that emerging technologies are more open source than restrictively patent controlled.
An editorial in Nature magazine noted: "The idea that biotechnology cannot by itself reduce hunger and poverty is mainstream opinion among agricultural scientists and policy-makers." Nature went on to urge that both Monsanto and Syngenta reconsider their boycott of the IAASTD -- partly because their stand would undermine public confidence in the biotech industry and in its ability to engage with its critics. The companies chose not to reconsider their stand.
Interestingly, the IAASTD report was largely ignored by mass media. That's partly why much of the debate on Bt brinjal makes it seem as though this last decade of intensive enquiry never happened.
One has to seek out the websites of various civil society organisations and scientific bodies to plug into these debates.
In the US, an activist group called 'Combat Monsanto' documents many examples of innovative agriculture, outside the corporate model, which produce higher yields while also being more ecologically sustainable and socially just.
In mid-2009, the American activist organisation, Food First, ran a campaign to oppose a bill in the US Congress which would force genetically engineered crops on other countries as a condition of receiving US aid.
The Training & Development Corporation (TDC), a non-profit think tank in the USA, is running a project to showcase locally owned food enterprises from around the globe. This endeavour aims to document successful strategies for small- and medium-scale community-based enterprises with a view to revitalising local food systems with a combination of traditional and modern hi-tech knowledge.
In India, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Hyderabad, is similarly engaged in unravelling the political economy of agricultural knowledge. CSA is in turn part of a wider web-based network called Knowledge in Civil Society -- which enables an assortment of natural scientists, social scientists, activists and other professionals to engage in deep conversations about the construction of knowledge.
However, such spaces for open and fair information sharing can easily be shrunk, even closed, by any entrenched one-dimensional view. Yes, dog-fights like the one over Bt brinjal are perhaps inevitable. And yet these are ripples on the surface.
The key battle ahead is about transparency and fairness in the politics of knowledge. A process like the IAASTD is significant, and not merely for its findings: its greater achievement lies in opening up spaces -- for bringing marginal ideas out of the cold, for enabling scientists, policy makers, farmers, citizens and private entrepreneurs to constructively challenge each other in a spirit of free enquiry.
Members of the IAASTD team are the first to acknowledge that while their report has many flaws it is the only voice in this field which included legitimate voices of concern and dissent.
Jairam Ramesh must be congratulated for the well publicised and patiently conducted public hearings on the Bt brinjal matter, which created opportunities for some open enquiry. This has also prepared ground for a more intensive, public review of agricultural knowledge systems as a whole.
A moratorium 'for now' on Bt brinjal is a healthy breathing space. It could still turn toxic if any one technology or strategy is pushed at the cost of a multi-dimensional approach to securing our food future.
Rajni Bakshi is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist and author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For A Market Culture Beyond Greed And Fear.