GM Foods

Recalling Moratorium on Bt Brinjal

Bharat Dogra

At a time when there is widespread apprehension regarding high-power efforts to weaken regulations which have by and large sought to keep away GM foods from India, it will be useful to recall the widely appreciated and admired democratic process during the days of the UPA government which had led to a decision being taken to safeguard the food safety of India by placing a moratorium on Bt. brinjal. The lobbying and strong pressures of multinational companies were successfully resisted to protect the food safety of the country, a fact which was noted and praised not just within the country but also internationally.

It wasn’t just the decision but in addition also the democratic processes leading to it which also attracted much positive notice and have been held forward as a model of taking decisions on such important safety and environmental issues.

On February 9, 2010 Mr Jairam Ramesh, India’s Union Minister for Environment and Forests, announced the important decision of moratorium on Bt brinjal on grounds of health, environment and safety which were detailed by him in a very transparent way in a carefully prepared document. In this document the Minister clearly stated how widespread the opposition to Bt brinjal was. To quote from this report - “All states which have written to me have expressed apprehension on Bt-brinjal and have called for extreme caution. Because this is extremely important in our federal framework and agriculture is a state subject, I summarise below the views of the state governments that have been submitted in writing to me by the Chief Ministers/Agriculture Ministers:

“Andhra Pradesh: "It is clear that the data generated, the tests conducted and the information disseminated by GEAC are not sufficient for suggesting the commercial release of Bt-brinjal....Until safety parameters in terms of environment, human and animal health are clearly established, release of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation is to be deferred"

Kerala: " Considering all this, Government of Kerala has taken a decision to prohibit all environmental release of GMOs and keep the state totally GM free. We would request the Honorable Prime Minister to reconsider the policy of GM in a national scale and declare a moratorium at least for the next fifty years".

Chattisgarh:" Before giving permission for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, all tests to establish full impacts, including negative impacts, on human and animal health and on the environment should be carried out".

Karnataka: "The commercial release of Bt-brinjal should be deferred till the issue is thoroughly examined from all the angles by taking into account the views of all stakeholders and conducting a long-term research for its bio-safety and its consequent contributions to food security and farmers well-being".

Bihar: "The Rajya Kisan Ayog is not in favour of the introduction of Bt brinjal in the state at this point of time. The recommendation of the Rajya Kisan Ayog has been considered by the state government and the state government fully endorses the view of the Ayog".

West Bengal:" I have got the report of the Expert Committee of the GEAC downloaded. I feel that the matter needs thorough examination by the experts in the field. I am requesting some members of the erstwhile State Agriculture Commission to examine the report and forward their views to the government to enable us to take a holistic view on the subject".

Orissa: "The Government of Orissa does not support the introduction of Bt-brinjal at this stage and until sufficient trials are made and interests of small and marginal farmers of the state are safeguarded".

“In addition, the CM of Uttarakhand has spoken to me and conveyed the decision to ban Bt-brinjal in that state. The Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu has informed me that the state of Tamil Nadu is not in favour of commercialisation of Bt-brinjal now. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister has told me that Bt-brinjal should be introduced "only after all doubts and fears have been properly dispelled".

This reveals that the Union government and more specifically the union environment ministry at that time was very careful about respecting the federal structure and obtaining the views of state governments.

Secondly, this document stated that as far as the objective of reducing pesticide use is concerned, other proven alternatives are available. This document stated, “it is worth recalling that there are now close to 6 lakh farmers in Andhra Pradesh fully practicing NPM (non-pesticide management) agriculture over an area of about 20 lakh acres. I have myself been seeing this initiative over the past four years. The advantage of NPM is that it eliminates chemical pesticide use completely whereas Bt-technology only reduces the pesticide spray, albeit substantially. Incidentally, one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change is the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture of which NPM is an integral part.”

Thirdly, this document clearly said that the tests on the safety of Bt brinjal conducted were not adequate.

“While there may be a debate on the nature and number of tests that need to be carried out for establishing human safety, it is incontrovertible that the tests have been carried out by the Bt-brinjal developers themselves and not in any independent laboratory. This does raise legitimate doubts on the reliability of the tests, doubts that I cannot ignore.”

Fourthly, this document stated that the contamination threat is very real, “The fact that brinjal is very largely a cross-pollinated crop according to the generally accepted scientific consensus makes the threat of contamination with the use of Bt-brinjal on other varieties a particularly worrisome issue.”

Fifthly, this document also confirmed that the loss of biodiversity threat is very real - “Apart from being the world’s largest producer of brinjal, India is undoubtedly the country of origin as far as brinjal is concerned as testified by Vavilov in 1928. Data that has been made available to me by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources of the ICAR reveals that there are 3951 collections in the Bureau and the number of diversity-rich districts is 134. The Bureau also points out that diversity-rich regions are likely to be affected by the introduction of Bt-brinjal due to gene flow. The loss of diversity argument cannot be glossed over especially when seen in light of the experience we have had in cotton where Bt-cotton seed has overtaken non-Bt seeds.”

Sixthly, this document also refuted the oft stated claim of GM-crop supporters that China is going in rapidly for these crops. Jairam Ramesh wrote very clearly, “I have spoken with my counterpart in China and he has informed me that China’s policy is to encourage research in GM technology but to be extremely cautious when it comes to introduction in food crops.”

In addition Jairam Ramesh also mentioned the negative views on Bt brinjal he received from several eminent scientists.

Professor GE Seralini from France in a detailed report   concluded that "the risk on human and mammalian health is too high for authorities to take the decision to commercialise this GM brinjal";

Dr David Schubert of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, USA stated that Bt-brinjal should definitely not be introduced in India since it poses serious environmental and health risks, will increase social and political dependence on private companies and will entail higher costs at all levels of the food chain;

What is most interesting is the expert advice Jairam Ramesh got on health impacts. As he has written, “I have had a discussion with both the Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research as well as with the Drug Controller to the Government of India. Both have recommended that chronic toxicity and other associated tests should be carried out independently. The parallel has been drawn with drugs where during the crucial clinical trials phase, independent testing is carried out on human beings instead of relying on just the data generated by the developer companies themselves. The DG-ICMR told me that in the face of contradictory evidence of the health effects he would advocate more caution and further tests.

“Doctors for Food and Safety, a network of around 100 doctors across the country sent a representation on the health hazards related to GM foods in general and Bt-brinjal in particular. They have drawn attention to the recommendations made by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine that GM foods have not been properly tested for human consumption and that there are substantial risks associated with the use of GM foods.

“I have also been informed that the Indian Systems of Medicine including ayurveda, siddha, homeopathy and unani use brinjal as a medicinal ingredient, both in raw and cooked form, for treatment of respiratory diseases and that the entire brinjal plant is used in such preparations. There is fear that Bt-brinjal will destroy these medicinal properties due to loss of synergy, differences in the alkaloids and changes in other active principles.”

Jairam Ramesh also emphasised legal support for an approach based on caution. The Supreme Court has invoked the precautionary principle as a guiding instrument in environmental decisions (A P Pollution Control Board vs MV Nayudu<1999(2) SCC718> by relying on the following:

"There is nothing to prevent decision-makers from assessing the record and concluding there is inadequate information on which to reach determination. If it is not possible to make a decision with ‘some’ confidence, then it makes sense to err on the side of caution and prevent activities that may cause serious or irreparable harm. An informed decision can be made at a later stage when additional data is available or resources permit further research".

Keeping in view all these factors, Jairam Ramesh had chosen his words carefully while announcing the moratorium on Bt brinjal.

“Based on all the information presented in the preceding paragraphs and when there is no clear consensus within the scientific community itself, when there is so much opposition from the state governments, when responsible civil society organisations and eminent scientists have raised many serious questions that have not been answered satisfactorily, when the public sentiment is negative and when Bt-brinjal will be the very first genetically-modified vegetable to be introduced anywhere in the world and when there is no over-riding urgency to introduce it here, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt-brinjal, till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country.

“A moratorium implies rejection of this particular case of release for the time being; it does not, in any way, mean conditional acceptance. This should be clearly understood.”

Apart from consulting state governments as well as national and international experts from diverse disciplines, this review took care to ensure that independent voices are heard and the efforts of lobbyists of multinational companies to push ahead only the voices of scientists who were affiliated or allied to them could hence be defeated. Another great asset of this robust process of arriving at a democratic decision free from the pressure of powerful lobbyists was that several public hearings in various parts of country were organised in which various experts, farmers, scientists etc. could come forward to express their views in an open and transparent manner.

It is worth recalling all this at this moment as the government is hurrying the process of framing new regulatons of GM foods which are widely believed by activists to be aimed at weakening the existing ban on GM foods in India, so much so much so that one of the important demands of activists opposing this has been to give more time for consultations. In view of the great importance of this issue for food safety and health, one hopes that the government wakes up before the on-going processes can inflict grave harm on food safety in India.

[The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine and Planet in Peril.]

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Vol 54, No. 31, Jan 30 - Feb 5, 2022