India Scuttles Corporate Offensive

By N. Gunasekaran

The peoples’ resistance against the introduction of Bt brinjal (Bacillus Thuringiensis Brinjal) in India’s food market achieved a success, which was unprecedented in recent history. It was the battle against the mighty, powerful corporate lobby that include Monsanto and officials like Dr. Nina Fedoroff, technology adviser to Hilary Clinton. Although two of his colleagues in the cabinet supported the Bt brinjal introduction, India’s Minister of Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh made a wise decision and announced the moratorium on the commercialization of Bt brinjal, until independent studies established its safety.

Brinjal — or eggplant — is the most-consumed vegetable in India. A genetically modified (GM) crop, Bt brinjal, is produced through genetic modification introducing a bacterial gene that causes the brinjal plant to continuously produce the Bt toxin. Monsanto Holdings Pvt. Ltd., a US-based multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, was promoting GM crops in India through Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (a 50:50 joint venture between Monsanto and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company). Monsanto’s philosophy behind the GM crops was that, “the old traditional ways just aren’t able to address the new challenges,” like pest control and increasing the crop yield. It assured that the genetically modified crop, Bt brinjal, being resistant to the attacks of many varieties of pests, had the prospects of increased output, with reduction in costs usually incurred on pesticides.

But there is no need felt from the farmers for the Bt brinjal technology. In India, brinjal is grown widely in a mixed cropping or inter-cropping pattern. There has never been a shortfall in production. High use of pesticide is seen in brinjal, but mostly in mono-cropped conditions. In Andhra Pradesh, non-pesticidal management practices are used for effective management of pests in brinjal.

Refuting corporate argument that, without Bt., pests couldn’t be controlled, the eminent ecologist Dr. Vandana Shiva illustrated that organic agriculture was the sustainable system for controlling pests and Indian farmers need neither toxic pesticides nor toxic Bt brinjal. For many decades, she has been campaigning for well-proven methods of ecological/organic farming and non-pesticide management for controlling pests and producing pesticide free food.

While introducing the Bt brinjal, the environmental and health risks of Bt brinjal have not been considered on a rigorous scientific basis. Out of 30 essential tests that must be conducted for establishing the safety of Bt brinjal, only six of these tests were carried out and it was all done by Monsanto itself. The Supreme Court-appointed member of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), P.M. Bhargava, described this process that it was “like asking the thief to guard our house.” He also revealed the fact that the company had not conducted long-term toxicity tests anywhere in the world on this product. Bhargava’s suggestions for DNA fingerprinting, study of proteins (Bt brinjal consists of a gene from a bacterium that produces a pest-killing toxic protein), study of possible interaction of the Bt protein with commonly used drugs and its effects on reproductive health were all ignored.

Only three nutritional studies — oral toxicity, acute oral toxicity and allergenicity studies — were conducted by the Bt brinjal developer, Mahyco, itself. Ironically, the director of National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad noted that the laboratory that tested Mahyco’s brinjal did not authenticate whether the brinjal it received was genetically modified. The essential tests like chronic toxicological impact, bio safety and environmental safety have not been done by independent laboratories.

In Andhra Pradesh, the effects of the cultivation of Bt cotton which is produced with the same technology like brinjal were disastrous. Several hundred sheep deaths were reported after grazing in Bt cotton fields and the research institutions have so far failed to investigate and explain this phenomenon, and in the case of Bt brinjal, it would be more hazardous since brinjal is an item of almost daily consumption for most of the people in India. Bt cotton affected soil fertility and soil microbial activity, and causes allergies to those working in the fields. The farmers had bitter experience of not getting compensation for the faulty Bt cotton seeds from the same Mahyco which is also the developer of Bt brinjal.

The assumption that genetically engineered (GE) foods were necessary for food security while common sense knows that food security rested on many aspects rather than one single technology. The episode of Bt brinjal once again raised the basic question: What’s the aim of technological research in agriculture? Is it for people’s needs or for company’s profits? Moreover, while 180 countries have either banned or passed laws against GM foods, India’s Environment Protection Act had no liability provision which makes a GM crop developer solely liable for any potential leakage and contamination.

Due to the increasing resistance from citizens and calls for caution from the scientific community, the Environment Ministry had to organize a series of public hearings on Bt. brinjal. Even in these meetings, the chaotic situation developed due to the massive protests. Ten state governments including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal opposed the government’s move. The corporate interests superseded all other issues like the rights of the state governments, safety concerns of the consumers, and most importantly, the traditional rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds. Dr. Swaminathan, who was known as the “Father of Green Revolution” in India, said the government should completely share the data, since “it is the public who has to consume it, not the government.” Many Left and civil society organizations and several scientists and environmental activists took up this issue and campaigned against the introduction of Bt brinjal. The protesters fasted on Martyr’s day, Jan 30, recalling Gandhi’s epic struggle against the British enslavement of India and its rich agricultural wealth.

Bt brinjal issue is another instance of global drive of the corporate concentration in commercial food, farming, health, and the strategic push to commodity the planet’s remaining natural resources. Such brute corporate invasion must be resisted through building local as well as global movements. Although it is a significant victory for the people of India, the moratorium on the commercial use of Bt brinjal is a small one compared to the task of overthrowing the corporate-based world order. For those who are fighting against it, the current victory by the Indian people, especially the toiling farmers, in the face of the US pressure, is indeed a fillip.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2010

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