In March, US President Barack Obama signed the HR 933 continuing resolution -- popularly called 'Monsanto Protection Act'—that effectively divests the federal courts of their constitutional power to stop the planting or sale of genetically modified (GM) seeds and crops regardless of the health and environmental consequences. In other words, whether you like it or not, despite the havoc it plays with your life and environment, you have no choice but to quietly accept GM foods.
On April 22, amidst the din and noise over the 2G Spectrum and Coal-Gate scams, the government introduced in parliament the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill 2013. No sooner the bill was introduced the Association for Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE) expressed jubilation thereby making obvious the incestuous relationship industry has with the government. Setting aside all concerns expressed by the 2004 Task Force on Agricultural Biotechnology led by Dr M S Swaminathan, which stated: "the safety of the environment, the well- being of farming families, the ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, the health and nutrition security of consumers, safeguarding of home and external trade and the biosecurity of the nation", the bill is an hurried attempt to remove all possible obstacles in the promotion of the risky and controversial technology.
In lot many ways, I find the BRAI bill 2013 to be a precursor to the 'Monsanto Protection Act' in the US. While the US government has removed all regulatory hurdles in the promotion of GM crops, the BRAI bill too makes the task much easier and quick by providing a single-window, fast-track clearance for GM crops. While in the garb of 'confidential commercial information', the BRAI bill imposes restriction on the application of Right to Information Act, it also has certain clauses that limit the jurisdiction of the courts over the decisions taken. The BRAI bill therefore provides a strong and legally-tight protective shield to the biotechnology companies and the conspiring government officials.
The need to curb transparency and accountability arises only when something dangerous has to be kept hidden from the public glare. It first begins by the pro-industry scientists, occupying senior government and university positions, to create scare by misrepresenting facts in the name of a 'science-based' debate. I have seen luminaries, many of whom are part of the science advisory panel to prime minister, leading this brigade. It happens elsewhere too. Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot points to the particular instance when the chief veterinary officer of UK had 'discounted fears that BSE could jump from one species to another'. The failure to acknowledge the scientific fact and take remedial measures led to the emergence of mad cow disease.
In India, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has been aggressively pushing for the spread of GM crops in the name of food security. When the Ministry of Environment & Forests questioned the veracity of scientific claims, and imposed in 2010 a moratorium on the genetically engineered food crop – Bt Brinjal, the GM industry was pushed on the back foot. Adding to its woes was the 2012 report of the Standing Parliamentary Committee, which in its exhaustive report found biotechnology regulation to be too small a focus on the vast canvas of biodiversity, environment, human and livestock health and therefore recommended an all-encompassing Biosafety Authority.
Subsequently, after seven states – West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgrah, Karnataka and Kerala – refused to go in for open field trails of GM crops, the only option left was to bulldoze public resistance through a legally binding mechanism. The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) then swung into action, and knowing that the Ministry of Environment & Forests is no longer a natural ally, moved the introduction of the bill to the Department of Science & Technology, which incidentally is a promoter of the technology. The conflict of interest therefore is clearly visible. But a defiant PMO continues to look the other side.
Greenpeace and the coalition for a GM Free India recently held a protest at Jantar Mantar to launch a nation-wide campaign demanding that the BRAI Bill be withdrawn immediately
At the same time, citing 'public interest', the BRAI bill has taken away the role the states have over agriculture and health. The states can no longer refuse permission. They are left with only an advisory role. What makes the BRAI bill a perfect subject for a serious, healthy and widespread national debate, besides of course looking into the role being played by PMO in promoting corporate welfare, is that it concerns as well as impacts everyone in the country. Whether you want to know or not, the bill provides biotechnology companies with unlimited powers to tamper with your food, health and environment. I therefore leave you to decide whether you would like the government and the GM companies to exercise complete control over what you eat.
Devinder Sharma is a distinguished food and trade policy analyst. An award-winning Indian journalist, writer, thinker, and researcher well-known and respected for his views on food and trade policy.