The Mahyco–Monsanto Story

Trial or Error : Lessons from GM-Crops

Tushar Chakraborty

Disasters brought people together. This is a mark of basic humanity as well as survival instinct of human beings. In the high-technology oriented age people are living today, along with intended comfort and profit, they are increasingly becoming disaster prone. Natural and manmade disasters are getting entangled in numerous ways. When people, unintentionally create the chances of rare catastrophe by deployment of superb engineering skills within a visibly large-scale mega project such as large dam, oil-rig, mining operation or nuclear power plant—their huge infrastructures are often awe inspiring to the common man, and wishes of the state are hard to challenge. In the state-sponsored development paradigm, these operations became largely immuned from scrutiny. Still harder is to question or scrutinize big-biology projects. The biotechnology projects, though high-technology driven, and equally (or more) catastrophe prone looks soft and unassuming from the exterior. Thus, the Chemical Industrial giants such as Monsanto, DuPont or Syngenta initially thought that their access to world Agriculture and Food production and marketing through bioengineering and biotechnology ventures is an easy job. Lots of hypes were thrown in to make these "alternatives" spicy. Initially, they enjoyed some easy access. But, now times are changing. It is not disaster, rather the specter of the disaster which is now uniting public opinion against any kind of open release of genetically modified organisms (GMO) which some taunt as genetically monopolized organism. The case of microbial toxin expressing Bt-brinjal is a prime example of this mood change. Both in India and abroad, now people are demanding strict rules, and even questioning the necessity of these inventions. Let us take a look into this GM-Eggplant controversy which is rapidly spreading throughout the entire South East Asia which is again the geographical origin of this common vegetable.

In the beginning, Europe became highly skeptic regarding utility of GM-crop and GM-food in general. Despite possessing this technology and playing a pioneering role in these inventions they gradually choose to follow "precautionary principles". What will be the response in the developing world towards this post-modern agricultural technology was unknown and uncertain at that time. Four countries adapted GM-crop technology at large—namely US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. But further expansion faltered thereafter. Its spread till now remains even more restrictive and compared to nuclear energy technology. US industrial lobby often stamped this as a mere European aberration. However, such excuse is no longer cutting ice these days. Farmers as well as public opinion, and the justice system everywhere are taking serious look at the open release of all kinds of GMOs especially, the plants. The risk and utility are being weighed cautiously. Now people also know that the use of GMO in the open environment will be judged in a scientific manner but not by the scientists alone. That is what an apex court in the Philippines showed recently. Being called as an expert witness in that trial, this writer had a chance to experience the seriousness of their response closely.

There are around two dozens of cultivated food crops of Solanum genus in the world today—Potato, tomato, tobacco and brinjals (eggplants). Eggplant or Brinjal (US/UK) is known as Baigon in Hindi, Talong in the Philippines and Begun in Bangla. In Asian countries, this is a major and cheap vegetable—grown more than 40 million metric ton annually. According to FAO, its market value today is around 18 billion US$. Perhaps this staggering figures made GM-seed business cartel led by Monsanto greedy towards brinjal cultivation and marketing. India was initially targeted by Monsanto through Mahyco—the Jalna based Hybrid seed giant company in Maharashtra.

It is true, that brinjal is prone to many pests and diseases. The fruit and shoot borer is one of these pests. But, the loss figures were hugely inflated by the Monsanto lobby to monopolize this market by their patented Bt-seeds. The Genetic Engineering Apraisal Committee (GEAC) of the Government of India, while giving green signal towards commercial cultivation of microbial toxin carrying Bt-brinjal in 2009 made a startling claim that 60-70% of brinjals are lost even after application of pesticides in India. A research team from the University of Minnesota, led by Professor Andow, an expert in agricultural risk and loss assessment has scrutinized the actual data in 2010. He found that the actual loss varies from year to year. The losses are usually around 5.4 % at the lower end in a normal year. The pest infection typically increases once in 4 years or so. In such a year the loss may be from a median level of 22% to maximum 54.8%. The 60-70% loss is thus a baseless figure. The Bt-brinjal debate became very intense, when commercialization became imminent in 2009. After the bitter experience of Bt-cotton the farmers became naturally agitated. Food safety concerns spread quickly throughout the nation. Eminent Scientists such Prof P M Bhargava sided with them. It was natural because despite about one and a half decades of industrial-scale production of selected GM crops, namely cotton, corn, soyabeen and canola, let alone testing, no scientifically rigorous and accepted consensus on biosafety and environmental risk assessment methodologies were ready. The regulatory authorities related to biotechnology products are truly speaking mere permit distributing authority. They illegally bypassed even old international treaties such as Cartagena protocols on Biosafety. A single rat feeding study of 10 rats, for just 90 days, was used by GEAC to support Mahyco's application to test Bt-brinjal on 120 crore Indians! Supreme Court intervention and hot public debate fortunately stalled this attempted commercialization programme of Bt-brinjal. February 9, 2010 is a historic day in the environmental history of India, when Jairam Ramesh, the then MoEF announced a moratorium on Bt-brinjal release. Unfortunately PM Manmohan Singh expressed frustration next day, when US sent a prominent emissary to New Delhi to stop this moratorium. PM Manmohan Singh has subsequently removed Mr Jairam Ramesh from his MoEF post, and now a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill has been introduced in the Loksabha to bypass the existing moratorium. This bill is faulty as well as mischievous. Sooner it is withdrawn will be better.

Facing the sudden and unexpected road block in India in 2010, Mahyco apparently activated its plan B for rapid commercialization of Bt-Eggplant in a covert manner. They went to the Philippines, where Talong or eggplant is a common vegetable. Mahyco roped in University of Philippines at Los Banos (UPLB), as a partner. They possibly did not realized at that time that the Philippines has the provision for writ of Kalikasan (Nature) as a legal remedy designed for the protection of nature as well as one's constitutional right to a healthy environment. The Mahyco-Monsanto combine was very optimistic as despite the scientific doubt that surrounds GMO food crops, the Philippines has never rejected any GMO application before approving since 2002, a total of 67 GMOs for importation, consumption and propagation. But, they met stiff challenge this time. When, Greenpeace and MASIPAG (A farmer-Scientist coalition in the Philippines) filed a petition to ban Bt-Talong field-trial it was found that the Mahyco–Monsanto is not alone in this game. UPLB trial was found to be backed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and US Embassy. In the trial, they produced Prof Peter Davies, a US plant physiologist from the Cornell University as an expert witness to support their cause. They wanted to quash the case, first of all on moot ground—as a purely academic affair where court must not have any say. But, the court overruled this argument. The court wanted a novel Australian hot tub (Steam bath) method—where about 3 scientific experts on both sides will place their major arguments and—if possible, refute the wrong charges by the opposite camp under oath. The Judges may ask question to clarify the issues and they will draw their conclusion thereafter.

In that Australian hot tub the UPLB placed 4 experts, three from the Philippines, and Prof Davies from USAID. On behalf of Greenpeace and MASIPAG two experts were from the Philippines, and the present author took part as an expert from India. Prof Davies and his friends consistently presented wrong and out and out biased opinion. They claimed 100% safety and certainty—against the opponents' arguments on uncertainty and unintended consequences. In that court room arguments they were miserably defeated. Sensing, their own blunder, UPLB, Mahyco, USAID triad tried to delay the judgment. Finally, in a 26-page decision issued on May 17 the appellate court's Special 13th division, appointed by the Supreme Court in the Philippines through Associate Justice Isaias safety cannot fully be guaranteed. Dicdican ruled that "the field trials of genetically modified organisms Bacillus thuringiensis (bt) eggplants could not be declared... as safe to human health and to our ecology with full scientific certainty, being an alteration of an otherwise natural state of affairs in our ecology." In its decision granting a "Writ of Kalikasan"' to stop the field trials, the appellate court ordered the respondents, including, the Environmental Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, to "permanently cease and desist from further conducting Bt-talong field trials", and clear the experimental fields. The court clearly said even the bevy of local and foreign experts presented by proponents of the purportedly pest-resistant eggplants are all agreed that aside from the fact that there are no laws regulating the field testing of GM-plants. For this reason, the court said: "This is where the precautionary principle sets in which states that, when human activities may lead to threats of serious and irreversible damage to the environment that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish the threat."

As soon as the Philippines apex court rejected Bt-Talong field trial, Mahyco opened its third front in Bangladesh. In terms of biotechnology product related laws and environmental laws—Bangladesh is possibly the weakest link. Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) jumped in to release four varieties of Bt-brinjal which are claimed to be developed from indigenous ones. If true, it is a fit case of bio piracy. Experts and agriculture activists in Bangladesh voiced concern over the government move to introduce genetically modified Bt-brinjal to the growers' level, despite a moratorium imposed on its commercialization in India and a ban on its field trials in the Philippines.

By following the trajectory of Bt-brinjal controversy, one can get a clear profile of the prime actors in GM Crop technology initiatives in Southeast Asia, and frequent their illegal operations which was hitherto unknown. One also can clearly see why the need of BRAI Bill is so urgent in India. Head of the public relations operation of Mahyco Mr Suryakant Mishra has recently issued a press statement that they know that "No GM seeds can be exported to other countries without the approval of the regulatory authorities of exporting and importing countries. Hence, there is no question of Mahyco exporting any GM seeds to any country without necessary approvals." Is it believable? It appears that Mahyco backed by USAID has broken every rule—just like Monsanto.

The entire operation is actually being orchestrated by the powerful Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project or ABSP since 199I. In this program America is using agriculture dependent developing nations as its risky agricultural laboratory. In this multifunctional operation America is also stealing the germplasm of commercially important agricultural products. The Indian operation is the part of US-India agricultural knowledge initiative. The second step of this operation, termed ABSP-ll came under direct patronage of USAID operated by the Cornell University. The Target Countries are India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia, from South East Asia. Several African nations and other nations are international partners. The target plants in India are Rice, Potato, Groundnut and Brinjal.

India and Bangladesh are marked in the USAID, ABSP map mainly for exploitation of the rice varieties. The court in the Philippines has shown the way—how to deal with these dangerous game plans and protect the nation and nature.

Vol. 46, No. 6, Aug 18-24, 2013

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