It has been a long and eventful year of environmental struggles but we can surely be proud of the achievements we have made as citizens to keep our country GM Free. The year 2012 marked a decade of introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in India, which began and ended with only one GM crop, Bt cotton, being commercialised in 2002.
Ten years and counting we know that Bt cotton has not had the increased production and the decreased usage of pesticide that was promised by the promoters of this technology. Instead what we have experienced is a gradual death of our cotton diversity as well as our cotton farmers. Over the years the negative impacts of GM technology around the world has been more evident in our food, farming and bio-diversity.
The only other crop that reached commercialisation stage in this time was Bt brinjal, which would also have been the first GM food crop to have reached commercialisation. But a nationwide opposition and a public consultation by the Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, sealed its fate. Bt brinjal was put under an indefinite moratorium on February 2010 due to the potential impacts it could have on our food, farming and environment and the inability of its developers to answer many a questions on the safety of it to human health and biodiversity. As minister Jairam Ramesh said in his order on moratorium, “(this decision) was responsive to science and responsible to society."
The public uproar and the resultant decision was also a clear message sent out to the proponents of this technology and decision makers that India and Indians will not be a laboratory and lab rats for GM crops. Since then multinational biotech seed companies and their cronies in the government have been finding ways to introduce this technology and putting our food and farming at risk and worse yet destroying our seed sovereignty.
BRAI stalled again
One such effort has been the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill which was first introduced in the Monsoon Session of Parliament in 2010. BRAI proposes a centralised single window clearance system for approval of GMOs in the country which is feared to lower the bar for approval. Besides lacking in scientific safety assessment procedures, the proposed law also creates a non transparent, undemocratic body which is riddled with conflicts of interest, a sure shot for corruption. A growing opposition inside and outside Parliament has ensured that the BRAI bill has been stalled for 3 consecutive years including 2012.
Parliamentary committee says no to GM crops, yes to biosafety: On the 9th of August this Monsoon Session, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture tabled its report on GM crops named, “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects”. This report which is the final outcome of two years of expert and public consultations is the most comprehensive and exhaustive report prepared in this country on GM crops. The Committee of 31 Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs, included 17 from the ruling UPA coalition and 11 from the Indian National Congress.
There was a unanimous agreement across party lines that the government needs to stop its unnecessary haste in promoting GM crops. The committee observing that GM crops will neither play a role in providing food security nor get the country out of the current agrarian distress unanimously asked the government to take a precautionary approach on GM crops and show no haste in approving them.
The report also mentions the need to assess GM crops taking in account the health, environment and socio economic realities of the country. Pointing at the total failure of the current GM regulatory system and the proposed regulatory regime, the BRAI Bill, they concluded that there is a need for an all encompassing bio-safety regulatory regime which has the main mandate of safeguarding the health of the citizens, biodiversity and farm livelihoods.
Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee (TEC) demands overhauling of the regulatory system and stopping open releases of GM food crops until then: A few months after the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture tabled its detailed report on GM crops, a high profile scientific panel appointed by the Supreme Court prepared its interim report on the safety of open air field trials of GM crops on human/ animal health and the environment. Their recommendations were on the same lines as that of the Standing Committee’s report. They clearly stated the flaws in the current regulatory system and the controversial nature of the technology and recommended a moratorium of 10 years on field trials of Bt food crops and an indefinite moratorium on herbicide tolerant (HT) GM crops until an independent assessment on their impact on human health, environment and socio-economic condition of the country is done.
Given the fact that India is a centre of origin of many crops like rice, brinjal, mustard etc they also recommended for a complete ban on any open release of GM varieties of such crops. The debate that was started by the interim report of the TEC, also saw widespread mobilisation around the issue. In a never before gesture hundreds of scientists and 20 farmer unions wrote to the Supreme Court endorsing the recommendations by the TEC and urged the court to accept it.
Public Protests stop Field trials: While the political fraternity is waking up to the issues with GM crops, science still remains divided on the safety and the benefits of this technology. People in the country, however, showed their dislike for GM crops this year. Farmers and civil society in Haryana came together in a massive protest against the open field trials of Monsanto’s HT GM corn.
Herbicide tolerant crops besides being notorious from their impacts on human health and the environment world over also have an adverse effect on the rural livelihoods in India. The opposition from the people in Haryana also came from the fact that this would lead to the control of our food and farming by multinational companies like Monsanto. In the end it was a victory for the people as their voices forced the Haryana Agriculture University, where Monsanto was doing the trials, to burn down these field trials.
Where to from here………..
The history of GM crops in India has been one of struggle of the people to protect the future their food, farming and biodiversity from the dangers of GM technology pushed by multinational seed giants like Monsanto . The year 2012 has clearly seen the scientific fraternity and political parties lend their voices to this struggle. If the government is serious about its mandate of providing food security to the crores of citizens, sustaining the livelihoods of the majority involved in agriculture, the way forward is not techno-fixes like GM crops, but ecological farming that will ensure a triple bottom line of social, economical and ecological sustainability.
But in the meantime since research in novel and at times risky technologies like genetic engineering will continue, we need to ensure that there is a biosafety protection regime in place in our country. This should have the primary mandate of safeguarding our health, environment and livelihoods from the risks of such technologies. Moreover it should ensure that public voices are heard and democratic processes adhered to while the nation debates about the appropriate technologies for sustainable development.
With national elections round the corner we hope that the government with its ear on the ground will listen to this demand of the citizens.
The writers are Greenpeace India campaigners, working of the issue of sustainable agriculture.