Agendas, of course, are immune from science or to facts

A protest against the BRAI bill and MonsantoA protest on August 8, 2013 in Delhi against the BRAI bill and Monsanto. © Karan Vaid/Greenpeace

The final report of the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) was released last month. It came days before Monsanto took a decision to withdraw applications for genetically modified crops GMOs in the European Union (EU) because of non-acceptance on scientific grounds and rejection by civil society. The TEC findings, essentially in line with its Interim Report, are a revelation in what is wrong with institutional governance and regulation in India in the matter of GMOs.

Remarkable consensus

The TEC Final Report (FR) is the fourth official report, which finds common ground on the lack of integrity, scientific expertise in protocols of risk assessment, independence, even fraud in the GM regulator and our agri-institutions as the outcome of a pervasive conflict of interest, which makes sound and rigorous regulation of GMOs impossible. It is the third official report barring GM crops' field trials singly or collectively. This consensus is remarkable, given the regulatory oversight and fraud that otherwise dog our agri-institutions. The pervasive conflict of interest embedded in those bodies makes sound and rigorous regulation of GMOs all but impossible.

The four reports are: The 'Jairam Ramesh Report' of Feb. 2010 imposing an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal, overturning the apex Regulator's approval to commercialise it; the Sopory Committee Report (Aug 2012); the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) Report on GM crops (Aug. 2012) and now the TEC Final Report (June-July 2013). The TEC recommends that in general, there should be an indefinite stoppage of all open field trials (environmental release) of GM crops, with a specific focus on Bt food crops, conditional on systemic corrections including comprehensive risk assessment protocols (which must include long-term rat feeding studies) that are both rigorous and trust worthy.

It also calls for a ban on the environmental release of any GMO where India is the centre of origin or diversity; and Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crops, which are targeted for introduction, should also not be open field-tested. The TEC "finds them completely unsuitable in the Indian context as HT crops are likely to exert a highly adverse impact over time on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods, and environment".

The PSC, report that preceded the TEC was no less scathing:  “ --   convinced that these developments are not merely slippages due to oversight or human error but indicative of collusion of a worst kind---”.  “--- field trials under any garb should be discontinued forthwith”. This consensus is remarkable

Sound science and factual data form the basis of the TEC decisions. There is practical and ethical sense too in that the TEC insists that the Government bring in independence, scientific expertise second to none, transparency, rigour and participative democracy into GMO regulation and policy with the accent on BIO-SAFETY.

A protest against the BRAI bill and Monsanto Over 2,000 people came together on August 8 for a day-long sit-in and march towards the Parliament demanding immediate withdrawal of BRAI bill 2013. © Navdha Malhotra/Greenpeace

GMOs, their assessment and performance

Genetically Engineered Organisms or GMOs produce 'unintended effects' that are not immediately apparent and may take years to detect. The risk assessment (RA) protocols to assess this laboratory-based, potent technology, described by the WHO as unnatural, are a constantly evolving process to be performed by qualified, experienced and responsible experts and that must be responsive to scientific knowledge as it advances and becomes known. The fact is that GMOs have involved us in a big experiment in the proposition that human agencies can perform adequate risk assessment, which will deliver safety at every level/dimension of their impact on the environment, farming systems, preservation of biodiversity, human and animal safety.

After over 20 years since the first GM crop was commercialised, there is increasing evidence, not less, of health and environment risks from these crops. Furthermore, 20 years of crops statistics from the US, (the country that first introduced GM crops), of two kinds of GM crops that currently make up 95% of all GM crops cultivated globally ie (like Bt cotton) Bt / HT crops, demonstrate declining yields over time and that they are significantly lower that yields being generated by non-GM crops. Pesticide use, the great 'Industry' claim of these GM crops, instead of coming down, has gone up exponentially. In India, notwithstanding the hype of the Industry and the regulators, Bt cotton yield is levelling off to levels barely higher than they were before the introduction of Bt cotton.

Bt cotton farm in Andhra Pradesh. Bt cotton farm in Andhra Pradesh.

It takes approximately US $150 million to produce a GMO against US $1 million through traditional breeding techniques. So where is the advantage and why are we experimenting given all the attendant risks? Yet we have the alternative evidence from every UN study and especially the World Bank-funded IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge and Science for Development) Report, which India signed in 2008. The IAASTD was the work of over 400 scientists taking over 4 years to complete. It was twice peer reviewed. It states that we must look to small holder and traditional farming to deliver food security in third world countries through agri-ecological systems which are sustainable. Governments must invest in these systems. This is the clear evidence.

Serious Conflict of Interest in our Institutions of GMO Governance

The response to the TEC Final Report came immediately, with the Ministry of Agriculture strongly objecting to the Report. The MoA is a vendor of GM crops and has no mandate for regulating GMOs. The same Ministry had lobbied and fought to include a sixth member, Dr RS Paroda on the TEC after its interim had been submitted. It is now clear that Dr Paroda has a serious conflict of interest. He steers the work of three Trusts/Associations/Projects, coordinating national and international programmes, linking in with our public sector institutions, primarily India's apex agri-institution the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) to promote GM crops. He receives funds from the biotech industry in this work. Dr Paroda initiated and formed these partnerships to promote GMOs in agriculture with the cooperation of India's National Agriculture Research Systems (NARS) while he was the Director General ICAR and Secy DARE (Department of Agriculture Research and Education) from 1994 to 2001 and the links with the ICAR remain fundamental to this work. With his induction into the TEC, the Supreme Court (SC) mandate for independence was breeched, provoking me to file an Affidavit in the court drawing attention to this. I was forced Of course; Dr Paroda could have declined to join given his conflicted position. Oddly enough, he did not sign the final report, or even put up a note of dissent. This allowed the final report, then, to be unanimous; as indeed was the TEC's Interim Report submitted by the original five members.

The ICAR (MoA) promotes PPPs (Public-Private-Partnerships) with the Biotech Industry. It does this with the active backing of the Ministry of Science and Technology ---another 'promoting' Ministry. the MoA has handed Monsanto and the Industry access to our agri-research public institutions putting them in a position to seriously influence agri policy in India. You cannot have a conflict of interest larger or more alarming than this one. Today, Monsanto decides which Bt cotton hybrids are planted — and where. Monsanto owns over 90 per cent of planted cotton seed, all of it Bt cotton.

A protest against the BRAI bill and MonsantoThe TEC recommendations could not have come at a more critical juncture for India: at a time when the UPA Government is ipso facto, planning to formalise, and make conflict of interest the heart of GMO regulation, through the Biotechnology Regulatory Act of India (BRAI) Bill, which it is desperate to enact. The BRAI Bill is perhaps one of best examples of a technically flawed piece of legislation of independent India that is also shorn of democratic content, shorn of a robust/ trustworthy basis for the regulation of GM crops and is draconian and corrupt in intent. Its purpose on a full reading of the Bill is very clear: it is being enacted to remove all hurdles and FACILITATE the wholesale introduction of GMOs into Indian agriculture and shut access to democratic channels of public dissent including legal remedial measures.

All the other staggering scams rocking the nation do have the possibility of recovery and reversal. The GM scam will be of a scale hitherto unknown. It will also not be reversible because environmental contamination over time will be indelible. We have had the National Academies of Science give a clean chit of biosafety to GM crops — doing that by using paragraphs lifted wholesale from the industry's own literature! Likewise, Ministers in the PMO who know nothing about the risks of GMOs have similarly sung the virtues of Bt Brinjal and its safety to an erstwhile Minister of Health. They have used, literally, "cut & paste" evidence from the biotech lobby's "puff" material. Are these officials then, "un-caged corporate parrots?"

Along with the GM-vendor Ministries of Agriculture and Science & Technology, these are the expert inputs that the Prime Minister relies on when he pleads for "Structured debate, analysis and enlightenment" (in a reference to civil society). The worrying truth is that these values are absent from what emanates from either the PMO or the Presidency.

Ministries, least of all "promoting" Ministries, should not have the authority to allow the novel technology of GMOs into Indian agriculture bypassing authentic democratic processes. Those processes require the widest possible — and transparent — consultation across India. With GMOs we must proceed carefully, always anchored in the principle of bio-safety. Science and technology may be mere informants into this process. After all, it is every woman, man and child, and our animals, an entire nation that will quite literally have to eat the outcome of a GM policy that delivers up our agriculture to it: if a GMO is unsafe, it will remain irreversibly unsafe. And it will remain in the environment and that is another dimension of impact.

The issue I grapple with most intensely is this: it is unimaginable that any government would even contemplate the sell-out of the Nation for an AGENDA inked-in with the USA. There can never be a reason, ever, to justify such rank betrayal.

 


Aruna Rodrigues is the lead petitioner in the Supreme Court for a moratorium on GMOs and in which case the TEC was formed. She can be reached at: .


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