Monsanto's Bt corn is the new Bt brinjal. No, it is not up for approval to be authorised for the market. Yet it has reached the stage of large-scale open field trials at six locations across the country from early 2010 until late 2012. Plus, there were eight locations where seed production has been conducted, again in the open environment. This will inevitably result in contamination of biodiversity. The next logical step would be to consider it for commercialisation. And given the apex body regulating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee's (GEAC) history, it would in all likelihood not reject the application.
Foreseeing this, Greenpeace India filed and RTI and asked for all the studies that have so far been conducted on the stacked gene version of Monsanto's GM corn to get a thorough understanding of the biosafety assessments done so far. The information was then given to Testbiotech, an independent research agency, for scrutiny.
This GM corn with modified bacterial and viral genes is supposed to be for pest resistance and for tolerating Monsanto's herbicide- Round up. It is crucial to bear in mind that Monsanto is the biggest biotech company in the world and they have also been mired in controversy throughout their history. They have been involved in the manufacture of highly dangerous products such as Agent Orange; a deadly defoliant used in the Vietnam war and have bribed governments to avoid conducting safety tests. These activities are indicative of their intentions and operations.
The independent review by Testbiotech on Monsanto's GM corn has brought forth many major concerns on the inadequacy of the data and lack of scientific rigour of Monsanto's biosafety studies. The review points out that the data is old, out-dated and irrelevant in the Indian context. Moreover, the studies are not independent – they have been done by Monsanto itself. Much of it is unpublished, which means they are not peer-reviewedmaking their credibility questionable. Furthermore, the studies are 90-day or sub-chronic, which is extremely short in duration, making it impossible to understand the implications on human health and the environment in the long run.
To quote from the report: "Based on the data presented by Monsanto, no decisions can be taken on the safety of the plants in regard to open field trials or commercial cultivation. Apart from missing data and inadequate investigations, there are in fact substantial indications for health and environmental risks. Several publications have revealed effects on the immune system, health risks caused by spraying the complementary herbicide, unexpected toxicity of the synthetic toxin produced in the plants and long-term effects such as losses in biodiversity as well as increasing resistance in weeds and pest insects."
The biosafety data as provided by Monsanto based on which both small and large-scale government field trials were conducted, are far from adequate. This needs to be highlighted especially given the myriad dangers field trials have on the environment, and thus on food security. Open field trials, are by nature, open to the external environment, and pave the way for contamination. Given that contamination is irreversible, it is a very serious risk and something authorities need to be extremely cautious about.
Earlier in July 2011, Greenpeace India had also brought to the notice of the GEAC Monsanto's violations while conducting field trials in Bijapur district of Karnataka. In May 2011, the Coalition for a GM-free India also brought violations to the notice of the authorities.
Since the moratorium on Bt brinjal, there has been no attempt to fix a broken regulatory system. It has been three years since Jairam Ramesh, former Minister of Environment and Forests declared an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal, the first genetically modified food crop to be considered for commercial cultivation in the country, owing to serious lacunae in the science, gaping holes in the regulatory process and concerns amongstcitizenry about serious implications on health, economy, farming community and ecology.
Rather than fix the regulatory gaps, rid our systems of conflict of interest, and up the scrutiny and scientific standards we have rapidly spiralled downwards. The Indian government is hell bent on replacing the current GEAC with a new, weaker one – the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India. Thanks to the opposition from both within the government and outside, this proposal is still pending.
The Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee in its interim report has emphasised on a science-based cautious approach towards open releases of GMOs, and recommended a regulatory system with biosafety as the main mandate. Additionally, it has made recommendations for a 10-year moratorium on field trials of 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.
The Parliamentary Committee has even questioned the need for genetically modified organisms in the farming sector as the panacea for food security. Food security of which nutritional security is an integral part is a function of production. Equally crucial is the kind of agriculture – diversity of cropping patterns - we practice, since diversity is needed both for soil health as well as nutritional security. Moreover, it has been squarely stated by the committee that there are serious and faulty procurement policies, mismanagement of stocks, lack of adequate and proper storage, hoarding and lopsided distribution and massive leakages in the public distribution delivery system which account for substantial losses of food being produced.
Going by government figures, updated to January 2013, India produces 667 lakh tonnes of food grain, 2.5 times more than the government's benchmark for buffer stocks. Yet, the food does not seem to reach the target groups, and the government goes on with the rhetoric of India must produce to feed a growing population. Au contraire. India already produces more than it needs.
If these shortcomings and problems are attended to along with liberal financial assistance to agriculture and allied sectors, proactive measures are initiated to arrest the decreasing trend in cultivable area and farmer friendly, sustainable agricultural practices are put in use there would not be any compelling need for adopting technologies such as GMOs in agriculture, which are nothing but a serious and dangerous distraction from food and nutritional security.
Rather than engaging in serious scientific discussions about false solutions such as genetic engineering, Sharad Pawar, the Union Agriculture Minister, is parroting the demands of the industry clearly indicating how serious he and his ministry are about food security. This is a good time to look back at the failures and learn what not to do.
It is time we get on with real solutions. Solutions such as agro ecology are being practiced successfully in many pockets across the country. Steps supporting these solutions should be taken by the government. Besides support for ecological farming practices at the farm end, there is also a serious need to refocus our agriculture research away from such false promises like GM crops to real solutions based on agro ecology. This would be scientific and progressive and a step in the right direction.
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Shivani Shah is a sustainable agriculture campaigner