Archive for February 26th, 2010

The Bt Brinjal Battery.

26 February 2010
The gravest threat facing India’s food security would seem to be the moratorium placed by Jairam Ramesh, Minister-MoEF, on the introduction of Bt Brinjal, until concerns raised by many sections including responsible scientists are satisfactorily addressed. That is the only reasonable conclusion one may reach going by the selective news coverage provided daily by Indian Express (IE) to din in this message in reader’s mind. The main thrust of the IE’s campaign was : (1) without recourse to genetically modified crops there is no hope for securing food for the hungry and toiling masses of India, (2) pesticides poison land, water and people; and that lobby is behind the move of moratorium,  (3) responsible science and scientists have vetted the introduction of Bt Brinjal; the opposition to it is made up of motivated or paranoid people, (4) farmers will benefit economically due to better yields and cost cuttings achieved through savings on pesticides, and finally (5) Genetic Engineering appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the ultimate decision making body and no one has the authority to question its wisdom (editorial labeled Ramesh’ decision as ”Subverting Independent Institution” – strong words those).
IE also never lost the opportunity to publicise the opposition that Ramesh faced from within the government, i.e. from Sharad Pawar (very much admired by Shekhar Gupta), Prithviraj Chavan, Kapil Sibal, and others. Every paper has a right to propagate its views through editorials or columns written by likeminded people favouring a particular stance. Mischief arises when what passes as news is selectively reported. Newspapers swear by getting ‘all sides of the story’ before the news-story passes the editorial muster. But such ‘balanced reportingwas conspicuous by its absence when it came to Bt Brinjal story. Apart from this ‘signal journalistic failure’, which is presently a common occurrence throughout mainstream media; even the objections raised by IE are not without faults. One has to bear following issues in mind when deciding : (1) Often prime agricultural land is under forcible grabbing from the government to divert it to mining, industries or SEZs and thus hampering food security & livelihoods, (2) Agricultural biodiversity, soil management, encouraging natural enemies of the pests, crop rotations, organic fertilizers and pesticides, etc. are other time tested methods to improve yields and food production. These ecologically sustainable options have not been made part of integrated crop management, nor have they been exhausted, (3) Chemical pesticides are of course harmful and their usage needs to be reduced & controlled, but GM food is not the first or only option available, (4) many scientists have opposed the introduction of Bt Brinjal on scientific as well as procedural grounds (see Bt Brinjal : Battle of the Trenches), (5) while the argument that farmer will benefit is gratuitously touted every time any decision is taken about agriculture, the results and experience of Bt Cotton have been at best mixed, (6) Dr. Bhargava, a member of GEAC, had faulted the decision taken by it relying as it did upon the data provided by Monsanto, whose product itself was under scientific enquiry, (7) the `nature of Indian agriculture’ (small landholdings, individual choices of crops ) is such that bio-isolation for not allowing GM and Non-GM crops from contaminating each other cannot be practiced in any meaningful way, (8) 90% of the farmers growing genetic crops are poor and in developing countries and considering the world domination of Monsanto in GM crops, it puts them at a severe disadvantage in any conflicts of interests, (9) every GM crop has two components : one is of course the patentable (transgenic) one that is subject to IPR, while the other far more substantial component relates to the original germplasm that was obtained through breeding over number of generations and lies in public domain and is not patentable; and with one neat trick of transplanting a gene from another specie the whole resultant product comes under the draconian patent regime (terminator seeds, zombie seeds, and what have you apart from the backing of onerous IPR laws). These are serious issues that need careful assessment before taking any decision about such fundamental prerequisite for lifefood.
The saturated one sided coverage ran almost on a daily basis in Indian Express and I have tried to compile below a partial list to show the sustained campaign IE ran to discredit each & every opinion opposed to the introduction of Bt Brinjal. But this is how main stream media is operating on most issues of grave importance to the common man and to his detriment from operation green hunt to SEZs to Dams & Displacement, and so on. I found only one news item wherein Dr M S Swaminathan commended the decision to keep on hold the introduction of Bt Brinjal.
25 February 2010 : “In a clear enunciation of the government’s policy on GM crops — a policy that got clouded by Ramesh’s rhetoric — the Prime Minister underlined the importance of biotechnology in productivity and food security, called for private investment in biotech, a time-frame for a decision on Bt brinjal and a national biotechnology regulatory authority”.
24 February 2010 : “One of the claims Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh made to justify his freeze on Bt brinjal was that the Bt gene would “destroy the medicinal properties of brinjal” which is used in several “traditional” forms of medicine. This claim, too, is being contested by experts as Ramesh comes under increasing pressure from within his government — the Prime Minister has called a meeting after Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar warned against “ad hoc” decisions on GM food that could set the “clock back” and demoralise Indian scientists”.
23 February 2010 : “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has stepped in to make it clear that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh will not have the last word on the introduction of Bt Brinjal or any GM (genetically modified) food. This comes after a strong note from Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar to the Prime Minister last week suggesting that ad hoc decisions on GM foods — a clear reference to the moratorium on Bt Brinjal — would “set the clock back”, demoralise Indian scientists and jeopardies R&D crucial to food security”.
20 February 2010 : “His colleagues in the Government, Ministers Sharad Pawar, Prithviraj Chavan and Kapil Sibal disagreed with him and called for science, not ideology, to dictate Government policy on genetically modified (GM) foods. Now the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC) has joined in — it has taken a stand more nuanced than that of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh”.
19 February 2010 : “National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute (NABI) aims to transform the agri-food sector into a globally rewarding and sustainable biotechnology-based enterprise through innovative solutions in primary and secondary agriculture”.

18 February 2010 : “Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal has put the brakes on a reform that would have drastically cut the amount — and cost — of pesticides used by farmers. To get a sense of the volume of pesticides used, The Indian Express travelled to Simuliapara, 100 km from Kolkata, in the heart of the brinjal belt. (At 2.7 million tonnes a year, West Bengal accounts for almost 30 per cent of the total brinjal production in the country)”.

17 February 2010 : “Discussion on Bt brinjal is the only item on the agenda of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) meeting on Wednesday. The meeting, however, is likely to be a stormy one with several GEAC members expressing anger and disappointment at the way things were handled following its clearance to Bt brinjal last year”.
16 February 2010 : “If not the decision on Bt brinjal, the timing of its announcement was certainly surprising. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had made it known many times that he would announce his decision on February 10. Accordingly, invitations for a press conference had already been issued. However, the preceding day Ramesh came to know about an application filed in the Supreme Court seeking to restrain the government from announcing its decision. The matter was supposed to come up for hearing at 10.30 in the morning on February 10 while Ramesh’s press conference was scheduled at 12.30 pm”.
15 February 2010 : “Joining the growing number of voices within the government that are uncomfortable with the decision to put the introduction of Bt brinjal on indefinite hold, Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan today said it was important to ensure that “slogan shouting and protests” do not cloud the scientific vision of the country”.
13 February 2010 : “Some matters are best left to the scientific community to resolve. The government must trust the scientists on their decisions unless, of course, there is strong evidence to the contrary, Sibal told The Indian Express”.
11 February 2010 : “Dr M S Swaminathan, widely considered the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’, today said the Centre’s decision to postpone commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal should not impact the biotechnology research currently going on in various laboratories across the country. He said the government’s decision has given time to researchers to build public confidence in Bt brinjal. “The (Bt) technology will be adopted one day as it has found acceptance in medical science,” he said”.
11 February 2010 Editorial : “….Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. That was how Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh signed off his busy day on Monday; that was the final part of the monumental effort at subverting budding, independent institutions that has been his populist, attention-seeking “consultation” over Bt brinjal”.

10 February 2010 : “Renowned Indian Agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan on Wednesday commended the Indian government’s decision to defer the cultivation of the genetically modified (GM) egg plant, Bt brinjal in the country and termed it as a wise and appropriate decision. Dr. Swaminathan said that studies should be conducted on this new variety of eggplant before giving it a green signal for mass cultivation”.