ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Activists Thwart GM Crop Approval
By Ranjit Devraj
NEW DELHI, Jun 22 (IPS) - Concerted campaigning by vigilant international activists have thwarted this week approval for commercial production of genetically modified (GM) cotton in India, but the victory may be short-lived.
For one thing, Mahyco-Monsanto has been asked to conduct research trials for just one more year and lead campaigner, Devinder Sharma, says the trans-national corporation is sure to exert even more pressure on the government next time around.
''It is a temporary victory gained only because Mahyco-Monsanto and its supporters in the government were caught trying to circumvent the mandatory three-year trial period,'' Sharma said.
Sharma pointed out this major flaw in the government scientists' presentation of data at the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests when it called an ''open dialogue'' prior to approving Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt Cotton called 'Bollgard.'
''To reach any long-term scientific conclusion for crop based research, the accepted norm is that it should be based on three years of research,'' Sharma said.
Earlier, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the government's premier farm research outfit has also raised objections to attempts at shortening the trial period favouring Mahyco-Monsanto, the Indian subsidiary of the United States-based multinational.
Pressing home the discomfiture of the government, Sharma and other campaigners are now calling for the disbandment of the discredited committee for attempting to ''slip a scientific fraud on the public.''
Others who attended the GEAC's public dialogue, including Michelle Chawla from Greenpeace International, complained that major environmental concerns that were raised were simply ignored.
''There has been no public disclosure or scrutiny to date of empirical evidence showing that scientific concerns have been addressed by Monsanto-Mahyco,'' Chawla said.
Doreen Stabinsky, science advisor with Greenpeace said Bt cotton threatened sound integrated pest management (IPM) practices that reduce pesticide use in cotton significantly while Bt Cotton can harm beneficial insects and lead to an increase in other pests and therefore increased pesticide use.
''The (government) scientists at the meeting refused to even acknowledge these possibilities,'' Stabinsky said.
The Indian government has been mum on this episode.
Monsanto-Mahyco's Bt Cotton field trials have always been shrouded in mystery and it took internationally well-known environmentalists liKe Vandana Shiva to blow the whistle on their existence in 1998.
In states like southern Karnataka, Prof. Nanjundaswamy who leads the Karnataka State Farmers' Association reacted with a campaign to physically weed out fields planted with Bollgard, Bt- cotton.
While Monsanto representative in India, Ranjan Smatecek maintains that the Indian government has given necessary clearance at every stage of the trials, Shiva disputes this.
Shiva's Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) has in fact challenged the legality of the trials, approved by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), in the Supreme Court of India.
Shiva said the next hearing of the case, pending since 1999, is likely to take place in July when the the Supreme Court resumes work after the summer break and that the attempt by the GEAC to approve commercialisation, meanwhile, was such as to invite contempt proceedings.
''During the pendency of the court case the GEAC could not even legitimately have commercialisation as a valid agenda item at its meeting,'' said Shiva who refused to attend the 'public dialogue.'
Sharma said that had the GEAC approved Bt-cotton, it would have opened the floodgates to other GM seeds and crops in a country which does not have technical and scientific infrastructure to deal with GM technology.
The DBT has already approved field trials for GM tomatoes, cauliflower and mustard by TNCs and is itself funding transgenic research in potato, rice, wheat and tobacco.
DBT's Manju Sharma has previously said that India cannot afford to lag behind considering that millions of acres of transgenic plants are now being cultivated worldwide.
According to Devinder Sharma, deferment of permission was helped by a blitz of faxes and e-mails from activists around the world directed at Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Agriculture Minister Nitish Kumar, Health Minister C.P. Thakur and Minister for Environment and Forests, T.R. Baalu.
He said the failure of Monsanto-Mahyco to obtain permission for commercialisation in India was only a one-year reprieve. ''We will just have to keep up our guard against Bollgard until next year,'' he said. (