Sunday, March 11, 2012

On Bt Trail… Bengaluru to Bhamb (Raja)=Kartik Lokhande in HITAVADA

On Bt Trail… Bengaluru to Bhamb (Raja)=Kartik Lokhande in HITAVADA

The last two weeks saw interesting developments in India, which is at crossroads of choice between adoption of Biotechnology in agriculture to ensure food security and widespread opposition to genetically engineered/modified crops. In a conference held at Bengaluru, scientists from across India and abroad aggressively pushed for biotech crops for food security in India. They even came down heavily on Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who had imposed indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal when he was Union Environment Minister, and batted for lifting moratorium. And, close on the heels of that, on the eve of visit of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, a non-descript Bhamb (Raja) Gram Panchayat in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra hit the headlines as it passed a resolution seeking ban on Bt Cotton. The Hitavada Chief Reporter Kartik Lokhande, who watched both the happenings from close quarters, presents what he saw and heard on Bt trail from Bengaluru to Bhamb (Raja).

“HEAVENS are not going to fall,” said Dr Gurdev Khush, Adjunct Professor with Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, when asked about fears of gene flow or gene pollution caused by genetically modified (GM) crops. According to him, possibility of gene flow or gene pollution was an ‘unimportant fear’ as it was not sufficient a reason to rule out planting of GM crops in India.
However, within a week since he made the statement in ‘Biotech Crops for Food Security in India’ conference held at Bengaluru in Karnataka, a not-so-qualified farmer from a virtually non-descript village Bhamb (Raja) in Yavatmal district, the hotspot for farmers’ suicide in the country, in Maharashtra said ‘no’ to grow Bt Cotton or any other Bt crop. The reason Gajanan Dumale gave was, “With Bt Cotton, leave alone other things, soil fertility is going down. Besides, I feel, no Bt crop is remunerative as it increases input cost tremendously.”
Putting things in perspective, one can say that both were right in their own right. Scientist was right as he knew science side of the story while a farmer knew ground reality as he was the one expected to adopt newer scientific strides in agriculture. And, here starts the debate in favour of or in opposition of Bt and ‘non-Bt’ or GM and ‘non-GM’ crops. Of course, between Bengaluru and Bhamb (Raja), the only difference was food crops and cotton crop. Still, the connecting dot was the same – Bt or Biotechnology in agriculture. Talking of food crops, India had faced a similar situation some time back when then Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had conducted public consultations across the country before imposing moratorium on Bt Brinjal.
As far as Bt Brinjal is concerned, the scientists believe that its advantages have been proved scientifically by many research bodies in the world. Whereas, the rights groups and those in favour of organic farming or ‘non-GM’ crops, say the bogie of food crisis is being raised to tap potential of Indian market for GM crops. Besides, there are concerns about bio-safety of these crops and their impact on human and cattle health. Though ill-impact on human health is a feared thing, farmers in many villages like Bhamb (Raja) are saying it openly that their cattle died or contracted hitherto unknown diseases after consuming leaves of Bt Cotton plants.
Dr Gurdev Khush, however, says that GM crops are safe and at least eight reputed research organizations across the globe have recorded their findings in this regard. These organizations include; National Academy of Sciences (1987, 1989), Advanced Committee on Releases to the Environment, UK (2007), 81 studies by the Research Directorate of the EU (Kessler & Economidis, 2001), French Academy of Science and Medicine (2002), Royal Society, UK (2003), British Medical Association (2004), Union of German Academies of Science and Humanities (2004), and FAO (2004).
However, independent commentators ranging from Devinder Sharma to Indian groups like Swadeshi Jagaran Manch feel that there is actually no need for GM crops. As far as GM food crops are concerned, Sharma had pointed out in one of his articles that India was a food surplus country and hence it did not need to introduce Bt or GM crops to ensure food security. Swadeshi Jagaran Manch also had made a similar point and had pointed out that instead of introducing GM crops, the Government should provide the farmers good amount of subsidy and introduce indigenously developed techniques and technologies as well as encourage organic farming to increase productivity and production.
On this point, even the scientists agree that India is a food surplus country. Still, feels Dr C Kameswara Rao, Secretary of Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE), one needs to consider a scenario in the country in 2050. By then, India’s food demand will grow tremendously and conventional methods will not be able to meet challenge. Hence, encouraging biotech crops now will be a step in right direction to mitigate food security challenges ahead.
“Delays and hopeless scenario on the front of regulators is causing incalculable damage as no fresh investment in agri-biotech sector in India will mean continuing with the challenge of food security,” feels Prof Shanthu Shantaram, Visiting Professor, Iowa State University.
If this is the scenario on the front of GM food crops, despite a few years since release of Bt Cotton, controversy still continues in non-food crops. Almost every Government agency claims that Bt Cotton has increased income of farmers. The companies say that improved yield has helped cotton-growers a lot. Renowned social scientist of Cornell University, who is known for his pioneering work on agriculture in South Asia, Prof Ron Herring, too, sounds in agreement to these claims. “Bt Cotton has improved income of farmers definitely.”
However, here, none other than farmers are talking against Bt Cotton in various pockets across the country. Many felt cheated when they saw that despite tall claims by Mahyco-Monsanto and other companies, Bt Cotton plants were not pest/disease resistant. Even the agri-biotech giant Monsanto recognizes this. Dr K S Mohan, who was earlier with Indian Institute of Horticulture Research and currently is IRM Manager (India) with Monsanto and a Monsanto Science Fellow, says that planting techniques need to be improved. “Refuge is an important aspect. Along with Bt, traditional variant of cotton needs to be planted so that performance of Bt variant is better,” he observes.
But, then, there are problems on this count also. As many farmers pointed out before Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture headed by Basudeb Acharia during its visit to Maregaon (Son) village in Yavatmal district, ‘non-Bt’ seeds of Cotton are not available in the market. Though the farmers did not know much about usage of words like ‘seed monopoly’, an accusation hurled by critics at multi-national agri-biotech companies, they pointed out a strategy adopted by these companies.
With all these pros and cons, whether the pro-biotech or anti-biotech groups succeed in India will be decided by the stand adopted by the Government. If the Government succumbs to pressure from pro-biotech groups, it is likely to lift moratorium on Bt Brinjal and also allow pushing further Bt Cotton till area under its cultivation is 100 per cent. If that stage benefits everyone or complicates the matter further, remains to be seen.

Europe Vs US
Don’t get surprised by this expression. In fact, this is what most of the scientists in favour of GM crops and some of the officials with the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India think.
Those in favour of GM crops think that opposition to the Bt or GM or transgenic crops is guided by Europe or Scandinavian countries. Ask Dr Gurdev Khush and he says, “Opposing new trends is a religion for Europeans.” Dr Klaus Ammann from University of Berne (Switzerland) is more vocal in his criticism. Calling organizations like Greenpeace and others operating in Germany as ‘Eco Vaticans’, Dr Klaus Ammann says, “Protests are used to make money and to capitalize on public fear. It is a faith of raising fear.”
Even Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had advocated recently introduction of Bt or genetic engineering technologies to increase productivity of agriculture, and had said that there were NGOs ‘often funded from the US and Scandinavian countries’ opposing this.
Still, according to some independent observers, at international level it is a war for market domination between chemical fertilizers lobby and multi-national corporations in agri-biotech business. On one hand, chemical fertilizers lobby backed the NGOs and provided them data that goes against GM crops. On the other, agri-biotech companies go on organizing sensitization events for Government officials, scientists, and policy-makers to convince them about ill-effects of chemical fertilizers and advantages of Bt or GM or transgenic crops.

What’s on the platter?
Already, biotech or GM or transgenic crops are being planted on 160 million hectares in 29 countries in the world. In India and China, scientists and multi-national corporations in agri-biotech business have been convincing the respective Governments to allow release of GM crops.
However, if sources in Government of India are to be believed, there might be GM or biotech crops already in the market. GM or Bt variants of rice, cotton, peas, potato, papaya, soyabean, brinjal etc are suspected to be in the Indian market already. Besides, research on Golden Rice (claimed to have potential to reduce Vitamin A deficiency), tomato (with high anti-oxidant and anti-cancerous activity) are at advanced stages. Research is being conducted on apple, brassica, other vegetables and fruits also.
Some of the scientists who do not wish to be quoted told ‘The Hitavada’ that there were illegal stocks of Bt crops including virus-resistant Papaya. “Transgenic germplasm travels across international borders. Bt Rice is all over China and it is exported to India also. However, officially, it does not exist,” said a scientist.

BRAI Bill -- A braid of arguments and counter-arguments

While the nation is debating whether to go ahead with GM crops or not, attempts to suppress information at the Government level regarding Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is raising suspicion regarding the Government’s intentions.
Probably, that is the reason, the draft of the Bill is not available on the websites of Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. Instead, the ‘leaked’ draft is available on websites such as There are several provisions in the Bill that raise these suspicions even more. The most debated provisions are Section 28 (I) and Section 70 (I).
Section 28 (I) reads: In case an application to be submitted under sub-section (I) or Section 24 or sub-section (I) of Section 27 requires the disclosure of confidential commercial information, such information shall, notwithstanding anything contained in the Right to Information Act, 2005, be retained as confidential by the Authority and not be disclosed to any other party.
(II) If the Authority is satisfied that the public interest outweighs the disclosure of confidential commercial information or such disclosure shall not cause harm to any person, it may refuse to retain that information as confidential commercial information.
This has attracted criticism from various quarters. Those against the existing version of the Bill say that the provision contained in Section 28 (I) seeks to bypass Right to Information Act in the garb of not allowing disclosure of confidential commercial information. However, argues Dr S R Rao of Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, “Confidential commercial information pertains to trade secret or any other information that has commercial or other value, or information relating to lawful commercial of financial affairs of a person, organisation, or undertaking dealing with products or organisms specified under Schedule I of the Bill. The said information does not include information on data related to safety or efficacy of the product.”
Besides, says Dr Rao, Section 8 (I) (d) of RTI Act itself provides for exemption from disclosure of information. This provision states, “Information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the competene authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information.”
There is Section 70 (I) in the Bill that states, “No court shall take cognisance of any offence punishable under this Act or the rules or regulations made thereunder, save on a complaint made by the Authority or any officer or person authorised by it.” The activists against BRAI Bill are opposing this tooth and nail as they feel that BRAI officers or authorities will not be answerable to anyone else than themselves. Obviously, the Government has not been able to provide any logical and convincing reply to this allegation.
Points of concern are many. For instance, the Bill does not make it mandatory to go for public consultation in decision-making process of BRAI. Interestingly, the public will be informed of all applications for field trials and clinical trials and regulatory decisions made by the Authority.’ However, this implies that they will not be ‘consulted’ but only ‘informed’.
Then, there is concern that BRAI Bill is against federal polity and powers vested with the States and the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). Bypassing the States and PRIs, BRAI will be able to take decisions in a centralised manner. Already, many states have expressed strong opposition to BRAI Bill.

Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India
BRAI Bill proposes to put in place a statutory independent regulator to be named Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI). The authority will be the Government of India’s nodal agency for comprehensive safety assessment of organisms and products of biotechnology. It will regulate research, transport, import, manufacture and use of organisms and products of biotechnology.
The BRAI will have various branches for different purposes. These include Agriculture, Forest, and Fisheries Branch (AFFB); Human and Animal Health Branch (HAHB); and Industrial and Environmental Applications Branch (IEAB). There is provision for other branches to come into existence in future as per requirement. As on date, the provisions specify that AFFB will be entrusted with the task of regulating GM plants, animals, and micro-organisms in agriculture, forestry, fisheries sectors. HAHB will regulate GM organisms with applications in human and veterinary health. Scope of HAHB will include assessment of potential risks to environment and benefits of applications of GM organisms in pharmaceutical development or recombinant livestock vaccine production. The IEAB arm will regulate GM organisms used in industrial manufacturing and in environmental applications, like for bio-remediation of contaminated sites or oil spills.

No comments: