The last three months have been eventful in our struggle to keep our food and farming free from genetically modified (GM) crops. Having stopped Bt brinjal from reaching our farms and our plates the challenge was about stopping the open field trial of various GM crops happening across the country. These so called 'experimental' releases have the potential to contaminate our seed and food supply and thus act as backdoor entry for GM crops.
Starting from the times when Bt cotton, the only GM crops which is commercially cultivated in our country, was being undergoing field trials there have been numerous recorded instances where inadequacy of the regulatory mechanism has lead to GM crops under trials reaching the market. But unfortunately our government and the GM regualtory system was just not ready to take notice. But things are set to change if one is to go by the latest developments in the legislative and judicial scenarios.
First it was the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture which came out with its report on GM crops, saying an absolute no to field trial in the current conditions.
This was followed by the Technical Expert Committee, set up by the Supreme Court of India, coming up with its recommendations to put a moratorium on the field trials of GM crops in India. The expert committee comprising of 5 eminent scientists from the fields of molecular biology, toxicology, bio-diversity and nutrition pointed out the potential threat of GM food crops to human health, bio-diversity and socio-economic condition of our country. It recommended a 10 year moratorium on Bt food crops, a moratorium on field trials of Herbicide Tolerant crops (till independent assessment of impact and suitability) and a ban on field trials of GM crops for which India is Centre of Origin/Diversity like rice, brinjal, mustard, etc.
While all this was happening in the policy circles, the public, especially the farmers, was also getting agitated about these open field trials. This opposition lead to almost all the state governments opposing GM field trials. The only 2 states that had permitted field trials of GM food crops in the recently finished Khariff (monsoon) season were Punjab and Haryana.
While in Punjab there is a debate on GM crops with local farmer unions and civil society actively involved in it, Haryana was slowly becoming the testing ground for variety of GM crop trials mostly due to lack of local opposition to it. Things seemed to have changed in the last 2 months.
This Khariff [monsoon] season the state had given NOCs for 6 GM corn varieties. Outraged by this farmer Unions and Civil society came together to form an Alliance for GM-free Haryana. The Alliance held its first press conference challenging field trials in the state almost a month ago.
This was immediately followed by a meeting with the state Agriculture Minister who promised to take action. In the last one month the promise remained intact and so did the GM corn field trials in the research stations of Haryana Agriculture University. What also remained intact was the resolve of the farmers in the state to make Haryana GM Free.
This finally lead to a massive protest in Kurukshetra last Thursday, where farmers decided to surround the field trial of GM corn that the University was doing for Monsanto, the American
Multinational seed corporate. Besides the fact that our public sector research stations are being used for experiments by the mulintational seed corporations with an eye for controlling our seeds, farming and food they were also outraged by the fact that the open trial was happening in the absence of proper safety studies. They decided to stay put until they got an assurance from the government that they will stop the field trial.
What I saw that day was amazing. Never in the past had the farmers challenged the agriculture research system in Haryana. Today it changed and at least for those 200+ farmers assembled there and the farmer union leaders the agriculture scientists are not Gods anymore. They will hold them accountable for what they do in the name of farmer welfare.
For me, it was not just about stopping a field trial of GM corn, it was about this change in 'power'. It was about empowering the farmers to hold the public sector research accountable for their doings and last but not the least, getting them to act. And when farmers act and power shifts, fall outs are bound to be there.
The first one being the Director of Research at the Haryana Agriculture University agreeing to destroy the entire GM corn trial by burning it in the next 2 days. The second is an assurance that they will not do anymore GM trials for private seed companies. Third that they will hold an open house for all stakeholders on the issue of GM crops.
Having got the knowledge, seen hope and tasted victory, I strongly felt that these farmers will not let anymore field trials of GM crops in Haryana. What happened the next day just proved me right. After giving an assurance of destroying the field trial within two days, the University authorities let Monsanto sneakout the GM corns harvested from the trial plot. But the alert farmers in the surrounding areas caught them red handed.
Within no time the word spread and hundreds of farmers from BKU surrounded the research station. Finally the authorities were forced to stick to their promise made to the farmers and burned the entire field trial.
Given that legislative, judicial and scientific agencies have endorsed public concerns and opposition to field trials there is no reason why our government should go on and permit these risky experiments. We cannot let our country become one big laboratory and all of us labrats!
Images: © Karan Vaid/Greenpeace