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The Gene Gun At Your Head
Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 09, Dated March 6, 2010

IMAGINE the lowly brinjal you have always known turning into a sci-fi gizmo - with an uncharted potency for good and evil. Imagine a food turned into a pesticide — and you will have a measure of the essential uncertainty around Bt brinjal.

When Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced his indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal on February 9, he halted a juggernaut that could have swept India to a point of no return. His decision has earned everyone a precious window of pause — a time to reevaluate, reconsider, retest. Most of all, time first for everyone to familiarise themselves with what is at stake. Conversations about science and agriculture are usually conducted outside public discourse. Most urban Indians, in fact, consider talk of farmers and vegetables a bore. If someone told you Bt brinjal is an issue of national security, chances are you’d laugh. But it is true. There are also people who speak of desi brinjal as a sort of modern day Mangal Pandey and the struggle to protect it a kind of 21st century Indian War of Independence. While this might seem hyperbole, it helps establish the scale of what is involved in the Bt brinjal debate in India. That debate, in fact, extends into every aspect of our lives: our personal health, our environment, our food prices, our bioheritage, our economic security, our national sovereignty. Our entire future. To not be aware and involved is to sign up as the proverbial lab rat.

The need to expand public involvement in this debate has become more urgent because, though Jairam Ramesh called his moratorium “indefinite”, the window of time he earned might be slammed shut sooner than he or anyone else imagined. Since his announcement, sections of the media and political establishment have been running a dogged campaign to isolate him and whisk the debate away from what they call “public noise” into the inscrutable world of pure science — a euphemism for single-window clearances. When Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan told the Indian Express, “Slogan shouting and protests should not cloud scientific vision in the country,” he could have been mouthing the thwarted exasperation of the entire pro-Bt lobby.

Just a cursory glance at the monetary stakes involved would explain some of the frustration. As the 8th largest seed market in the world, India has a $ 1 billion per year seed industry, currently occupied by the unorganised and public sector — waiting to be corporatised. According to a Business Standard report, the corporate seed industry is growing at 15 percent annually; and 85 percent of India’s seed market still remains to be penetrated. Just the Bt cotton seed industry accounts for Rs 2,000 crore annually. Bt brinjal was only the outrider. Ranged behind it is an army of Bt crops waiting for the regulatory drawbridge to be lifted: rice, tomato, potato, wheat, okra. The list runs to 41. One billion Indian stomachs to be corporatised and Jairam Ramesh had put a spoke in it. Industry could not have been happy.

In this session of Parliament, the Department of Biotechnology — which comes under the science ministry and whose stated objective is to promote GM crops and so has an inherent conflict of interest — will be putting up an ominous piece of legislation: the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill 2009 (NBRAI, 2009). This draft Bill, which is still marked “secret”, is full of undemocratic and draconian clauses. First, it proposes to take away power from the current, flawed but broad-based committee under the environment ministry and hand approval of GM crops over to a committee of three technical experts under the science ministry — not only making them vulnerable to manipulation, but turning an ethical, environmental, economic and health issue into a purely technological one.

Not just this, instead of enhancing transparency and information disclosure, the NBRAI seeks to protect corporates with legal cover for retaining Confidential Commercial Information. (It is revealing that Greenpeace had to fight a 30-month RTI battle with the Department of Biotechnology to release the Bt brinjal bio-safety dossier submitted by Mahyco, the company that has developed the crop in India in conjunction with American seed giant, Monsanto. The department claimed sharing the dossier would compromise Mahyco’s commercial interests! It was finally made public by a Supreme Court order.)

The bill also turns the federal nature of India on its head and proposes to take away the constitutional authority state governments have over agriculture and health and give the technical committee overriding power. (The fact that 10 state governments across political parties refused to allow the entry of Bt brinjal might cast light on this clause.) Apart from many other disturbing provisions ( see box: Wrong Bill for Wrong Reasons), most shockingly, Section 63 of the NBRAI Bill proposes imprisonment and fine for anyone who “without evidence or scientific record misleads the public about safety of GM crops”. That could put all activists and journalists in jail for merely asking questions.

Why this desperation to bulldoze Bt crops onto India? If these crops are for the public good, why this fear of debate? Why this need to muzzle? Why this hesitation to convince? Before one probes these questions about Bt brinjal, at a much more elemental level, if the pro-Bt lobby succeeds in yanking this debate away from the public domain, nothing would be more disastrous for the country. Whether one agrees with him or not, the way in which Jairam Ramesh went about making his decision on Bt brinjal can only be applauded as a high note for Indian democracy. Knowing the many issues riding on it, when the committee currently empowered to approve GM crops — the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) — cleared it for commercial release on October 14, 2009, he uploaded the report on his ministry website and invited independent feedback till December 31, 2009. Following this, in an unprecedented move, he consulted over 8,000 people (scientists, agriculture experts, farmers’ organisations, consumer groups and NGOs) — “public noise” — through seven public consultations across the country. Finally, on February 9, 2010, soon after he announced his moratorium, in a superbly transparent and well-written document, he tabulated all the reasons for his decision and uploaded it on the ministry website, along with all the feedback he had received, for public scrutiny.

But for this transparency, the cloudy story of Bt brinjal would never have come to light. Dr S Parasuraman, director of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, was part of the original expert committee (EC 1) set up to evaluate Bt brinjal, as well as part of a special Technical Review Committee. When EC 1 was disbanded and EC 2 was set up, he was not invited to be on it. Given his experience with EC 1, he says it was only to be expected.

His account is just the tip. “I was constantly surprised at the way meetings of the Technical Review Committee were conducted,” says he. “Our job was to read all the reports produced by Mahyco and the institutions associated with them. I read through 5,000 pages of documents and produced my own report in response. As far as I know, I was the only one to put my observations down in writing. I was appalled at the lack of scientific rigour in these reports. There was no credible methodology, no objective analysis; 99 percent of the reports produced from various institutes were the result of research programmes funded by Mahyco. There was no independent thought or inquiry informing the research. At every meeting, there was a level of complacency the scientists brought in — almost as if they had not grasped the consequences of the introduction of a Bt food crop. Giving approval was their moot point.”

Parasuraman’s statements as an insider echo the highly disturbing findings of a group of eminent Indians and 18 international scientists. On February 8, they wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress head Sonia Gandhi to draw attention to a letter written by Prithviraj Chavan in July 2009, while he was a Minister of State in the prime minister’s office, in response to a letter from then Health Minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, addressed directly to the PM in February 2009.

In his letter to the PM, Ramadoss had raised questions about the potential health impact of GM foods. Chavan’s reply — written almost five months later — assured Ramadoss that “the various issues raised in your letter have been examined carefully and by applying the best scientific evidence available today”. However, in an exposé that has far-reaching implications — and pretty much sums up the problem with the GM food debate — these civil society members and international scientists have now revealed that much of Chavan’s letter was excerpted directly from promotional materials of the agricultural biotechnology industry, in particular the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) — “an organisation that at best can be described as pseudo-scientific, funded primarily by Monsanto and other biotechnology multinational companies and whose purpose is to promote and facilitate the commercial introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in the developing world.”

These scientists then go on to rebut Chavan’s claims paragraph by paragraph, citing authoritative references, hoping to “bring out the true facts of GM crops” to enable an informed discussion on their “unique risks to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible.” Finally, they urge the prime minister, “for the sake of the safety of the Indian people, and the welfare of Indian farmers, to readdress the official position on GM crops.”

Had Jairam Ramesh and others not traded “pure science” for some “public noise”, we would have known none of this. We would have been sitting at our dining tables today eating Bt brinjal — without adequate testing, without labeling, and without our consent. All in the name of the Second Green Revolution. And sanctioned by the highest offices in the land. THE CURIOUS case of Bt brinjal then starts with a root question: do we really need it? India is the country of origin for brinjal and has 2,400 species. (Some of these wild species have medicinal properties used in ayurveda and unani.) Although brinjal is grown on only half a million hectares in the country, its annual yield is 8 million tonnes. As far as anyone can tell, there is no crisis in India’s brinjal production. So why are we being asked to switch to a vegetable injected with the contentious Bt gene — making it almost the first Bt food crop anywhere in the world that would be directly ingested, as versus being processed or fed to cattle. This question becomes even more urgent when both common sense and India’s legal infrastructure — in this case, the National Environment Policy 2006 — states that a “precautionary principle” must govern our agricultural strategies, especially when there is doubt about the cause-and-effect; doubt about risk assessment, doubt about efficacy, doubt about cumulative, long-term consequences, and doubt about regulatory and management measures.

In fact, far from the certainty one associates with science, doubt seems to be the key leitmotif of Bt seeds. To start with the basics: Bt — bacillus thuringiensis — is a soil bacterium that produces insecticidal proteins. Around the 1980s, Monsanto developed and patented a technology that enabled this gene to be injected into seeds — turning the plant into a kind of living pesticide. It appears that the moment a target pest eats the plant, it dies. No one though has yet fully ascertained what happens to humans who eat it. Dr Samir Brahmachari, a proponent of GM foods and director general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, rightly asserts that there is no human receptor for the Bt gene; he believes this is proof that Bt foods are perfectly safe for human consumption. Other scientists, however, say that sufficient tests have not been done to ascertain in what other ways the Bt gene can react — alchemise — within the human body. After all, living organisms have an uncanny way of mutating along unpredictable lines. The key point is, though all of this suggests some kind of scientific precision, Bt technology is far from precise and the resultant crop is, in many senses, an inherently unstable and unknowable organism.

Since its invention, the arguments for and against Bt have ranged roughly along these lines. Votaries of Bt seeds claim they give higher yields, are pest resistant, and, therefore, reduce the use of pesticides. This, they argue, will bring down farmers’ expenses and shore up food security.

Those who oppose it have a list of much darker and deeper questions. How safe are Bt seeds for human health? Have they been sufficiently tested? Given the huge corporate money driving this sector, can we trust the clearances given to them and regulatory mechanisms around them? How does one stop them from cross-contaminating other fields through wind and insect pollination? How does one stop them from overrunning and destroying bio-diversity? Since they target only particular pests, how effective are they with other pests? Do target pests also become resistant after a while? Do Bt crops then really reduce pesticide usage? Do they inherently give more yields? Given how expensive the seeds° are, and that they force farmers to buy fresh seeds every season, how do they really benefit farmers? Given that GM foods are not labeled, where does that leave the ethical issue of consumer choice? Do Bt seeds have terminator genes? If companies like Monsanto patent all seeds, how can societies protect themselves from corporate control over food production?

For answers to all these claims and counter questions, we have only four sets of experiences to go by: the story of Bt brinjal; the experience of Bt cotton in India; the experiences of Bt crops elsewhere in the world; and the story of Monsanto.

Unfortunately, the story of Bt brinjal so far is mostly not a pretty one.

Take just the two primary issues of insufficient testing and faulty clearances. Apart from the ambiguities already documented in this article, Bt brinjal was cleared by the GEAC based purely on data and samples provided by Mahyco and the institutions it used for testing. No independent testing was done. The authenticity of the samples was not ascertained.

In a detailed note, Dr PM Bhargava, one of India’s most eminent microbiologists and a Supreme Court-appointed observer to the GEAC, raised 29 flags on the bio-safety dossier produced by Mahyco and cleared by the GEAC. Among his many disturbing observations, it turned out that in some tests the control sample itself was false: the non-Bt brinjal sample that was not cooked, for instance, scored positive for Bt protein! In many of the toxicity tests, the test was not done on a plant extract containing the Bt gene, but on a surrogate protein.

(At one of Jairam Ramesh’s Bengaluru consultations, TV Jagadisan, a former managing director of Monsanto in India, declared publicly that the company had routinely got clearances for its agro-chemicals from the Insecticides Board based on the company’s own data. Later, he told TEHELKA that it was inevitable that such data would be “made to look favourable to the company”.)

Dr Arjula Reddy, vice chancellor of an Andhra university and co-chairman of the EC 2 (which recommended approving Bt brinjal), however, refutes all these allegations. In a sense. According to Reddy, all the tests that were prescribed under law were done. He admits there might be a case for more testing, but seemingly oblivious to his unethical position, he says, “After nine years, at this late stage, how can one ask the company for fundamental new tests? On the one hand, the government is encouraging research in GM crops, on the other, it is rejecting them. How can this work?” As co-chairman of a key regulatory body, it might have helped Dr Reddy to remember that he was positioned to be the custodian of consumer and farmer interests, not corporate convenience.

Dr Reddy, however, points to other key areas of worry. The weakening of the public research system has meant all agricultural research today is driven by the private sector. This, he says, “has blurred the concept of public good. The profit motive has taken over.” Worse, with at least 56 GM foods in the pipeline, 41 of which are food crops, he admits that Indian scientists can have no idea what the impending large-scale arrival of GM foods will do to the human body. Or the environment. Or bio-diversity. “This has to be part of a larger policy decision,” says he. He adds that there are five versions of the Bt cotton gene in the Indian market today. “To my knowledge,” he says, “many of these are not functioning well, but farmers will find it very difficult to tell between them. How will they distinguish? What is the policy on all this?”

Finally, exposing the moral and scientific fuzziness around GM foods in general, he says, “China has already introduced transgenic rice. We went by the reasoning that people eat at least half a kilo of rice a day, and if they have already gone ahead, why are we fussing so much over brinjal, whose intake is much less?

By all accounts, Dr Reddy is a respected scientist. His views therefore serve well to explain the prevalent psychological mindset in the pro-Bt community - a mindset that is based more on eagerness than empiricism.

This sense that China has done it, so why not us; and that raising questions about GM foods is tantamount to national betrayal is echoed in statements made by senior ministers like Chavan, HRD minister Kapil Sibal and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar — all three aggressive proponents of Bt brinjal. According to a recent Indian Express report, in fact, the prime minister has apparently called for a meeting between all these ministers and Jairam Ramesh because Pawar is worried that such “ad hoc” decisions as stalling Bt brinjal would set the “clock back” and “demoralise Indian scientists”. (It might be good to ask, what was the clock ticking towards? And is science supposed to be about sentiment or rigour? And why should public interest be held ransom to scientists’ emotions? If the NBRAI comes into force, of course, one supposes one could be jailed for merely asking all that.)

But what of Dr Reddy? Did he really hold these views? In another disturbing revelation, Dr Bhargava says he received a confidential call from Reddy about two weeks prior to the GEAC’s decision. Reddy apparently told him that eight of the additional tests Bhargava had asked for, as a Supreme Court-appointed member of the GEAC, had not been done; and even among the tests that were done, many were not satisfactory or adequate. Reddy apparently also told Bhargava that he was under “tremendous pressure” to clear Bt brinjal and had calls from “the agriculture minister, GEAC and industry”. According to Bhargava, Reddy indicated he was in a big dilemma; Bhargava advised him to follow his conscience. But two weeks later, Reddy approved Bt brinjal. Asked about this, Dr Reddy said, “Everyone in Hyderabad knows me, no one can put pressure on me.” Despite TEHELKA’s efforts, Sharad Pawar could not be reached.

In yet another disturbing revelation, there is a police complaint as well as a report to the Central Vigilance Commissioner against Dr KK Tripathi, a powerful nodal officer in the Department of Biotechnology and convenor of the RCGM, a gate-keeping expert committee which clears GM cases for testing before they even reach the GEAC. The police complaint by SVR Rao of Hyderabad-based Nuziveedu Seeds (FIR dated June 27, 2009) and letter to the Vigilance Commissioner (dated June 6, 2009) allege that Tripathi has consistently been favouring Mahyco’s Bt cotton hybrids and obstructing Nuziveedu and other Indian competitors. Tripathi refused to take TEHELKA’s questions.

Again, this is only one of the many ugly controversies the GEAC is dogged by. To name just a few others: The composition of its second expert committee (EC 2) is fraught with conflict of interest. Of the 16 members in the committee, the concerns about Reddy and Tripathi have already been outlined. Apart from this, three members were directly involved in conducting the bio-safety tests sponsored by Mahyco, yet were being entrusted to review their own tests, instead of merely making a presentation to the committee! One member is a Bt brinjal developer himself. Two members played a lead role in recasting the regulatory guidelines for GM foods to “harmonise” them with Codex guidelines through a project funded by USAID (an American fund), and rejected many of the tests their peers were asking for. Two members were merely observers; one member did not attend any of the meetings. That leaves just five members out of 16 on whom no aspersion can be cast.

Apart from the fact that no long-term tests, particularly multi-generation tests for human safety, have been conducted, or that even adverse results of short-term tests on lab rats’ kidneys and livers were suppressed, the saga of Bt brinjal’s attempted entry into India exposes several other major concerns. (Long-term testing for human safety is particularly important given that most health impacts in modified foods take a long time to manifest themselves. Take the widely acknowledged case of “Dalda”, generic name in India for transfats, for instance. Thirty years after synthetic fats were aggressively pushed into the market, it’s been declared highly toxic for the heart and banned in many parts of America. Meanwhile, heart attacks have become visibly more prevalent both in India and America.)

But one of the other major concerns epitomised by the rocky journey of Bt brinjal is the issue of labeling. Monsanto has consistently — and contentiously — refused to label its GM foods. This is the key reason why many countries in Europe have banned GM foods. In India, though, the callous attitude towards labeling is appalling. Dr Samir Brahmachari of CSIR is on record saying he is “100 percent sure” Bt brinjal is safe for human consumption because American Bt soya and corn are already being consumed by us in India without our knowledge [my italics], and so if we had to fall ill we already would have; but there is no case that proves this. It would be futile to remind him that even if we were falling ill because of our involuntary Bt food intake, we can’t know because there is no testing going on to establish the connection! That apart, Brahmachari and others like him seem completely unmindful of the fact that not labeling is a unethical thing to do, as well as contradicts the Cartagena Protocol to which India subscribes and which states that the right to informed consumer choice is a moral and ethical imperative. (Incidentally, Brahmachari refused to speak to TEHELKA.)

Economist Abhijit Sen, a member of the Planning Commission, however, is much more nuanced. Though he admits the success of Bt cotton in India has made him believe GM crops are key to ushering in the next Green Revolution, he thinks the decision to stall Bt brinjal was a “wise decision in the balance” — largely because when a food and “agricultural novelty” of the scale of Bt brinjal is being introduced, the regulatory mechanism around it has to be completely “above suspicion”. As far as labeling goes, he says there is a “very strong moral case” for it, but the scale of surveillance required makes it financially untenable. As things stand, then, if the army of Bt crops waiting in the wings were to go through, many Indians not wanting to eat GM foods would have no option but to give up those foods. Given that one of the most urgent allegations against Bt crops is that it invades and contaminates other fields, this threatens to narrow down the menu on your plate pretty severely.

In an extensive email interview with TEHELKA, Dr Gyanendra Shukla, Managing Director, Monsanto (India), however puts forward a common industry line in defence. Apart from the costs involved, Shukla says, “Some people believe labeling is a right-to-know issue, others believe that since there’s no difference between biotech-enhanced and non-biotech enhanced foods, labeling shouldn’t be required.” He goes on to say, “Regulatory authorities around the world have found that foods from biotech crops are as safe as those from conventional crops, and hence do not require to be labeled. We support the need for labeling if there is a scientific reason for it, for example, if the nutritional composition of the biotech-enhanced product is substantially different from that of the non- biotech-enhanced product.”

All these assertions of “substantial equivalence with conventional crops” are highly contentious. As already documented in this article, regulatory bodies are anything but kosher. Also, according to cases cited by Dr PM Bhargava and sent to Jairam Ramesh, Monsanto has a bad history of suppressing incriminating data. In one particularly startling case, Monsanto omitted to mention in its 1996 published study on GM soyabeans that GM soya contained significantly lower levels of protein and other nutrients and toasted GM soya contained nearly twice the amount of a lectin (protein) that may block the body’s ability to assimilate other nutrients. Further, the toasted GM soy contained as much as seven times more trypsin inhibitor, a major soya allergen. Monsanto had titled their study: “The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean is equivalent to that of conventional soyabeans.” This incriminating information was only recovered by an investigator in 2005. (It would be good to remember that the need for GM soyabean first came up because of a herbicide called Round Up produced by Monsanto itself. When this was sprayed in fields it was found that not only did it destroy weeds, it also destroyed the soya. So Monsanto developed Round Up resistant soya and marketed both!)

In another disturbing incident cited by Bhargava, until it was forced to do so by a German court, Monsanto refused to reveal its own secret animal feeding studies, which revealed serious abnormalities in rats fed GM corn, citing Confidential Business Information. One of its Bt corn products was subsequently banned in some EU countries.

Such sleights-of-hand by Monsanto was best summed by Michael Pollan in an exhaustive 1998 New York Times article, Playing God in the Garden: “In a dazzling feat of positioning,” Pollan wrote, “the industry has succeeded in depicting these plants simultaneously as the linchpins of a biological revolution — part of a ‘new agricultural paradigm’ that will make farming more sustainable, feed the world and improve health and nutrition — and, oddly enough, as the same old stuff, at least so far as those of us at the eating end of the food chain should be concerned.”

THE APPARENT success of Bt cotton in India is a big game-changer for many people. To get real first-hand feedback, TEHELKA sent reporters out to four major cotton- growing areas: Bhatinda (Punjab); Vidarbha (Maharashtra); Warangal (Andhra Pradesh) and Surendranagar (Gujarat).

At first glance no one can deny Bt cotton has generally been a huge success story in terms of productivity and reduced use of chemical pesticides. Ninety percent of cotton farmers in India now cultivate Bt cotton. (See box: Cotton Fields Back Home) Yet, TEHELKA’s ground reports also point to some significant patterns that — ironically — reinforce many doubts about Bt crops even while acknowledging their potential for success.

One of the most seductive promises of Bt seeds is that they assure uniformly increased yields. This is misleading because there is nothing inherent in the Bt gene that enhances yields: yields only go up because the Bt plant annihilates its dominant pest-type. So Bt cotton, for instance, has been engineered to destroy the American bollworm; Bt brinjal to defeat the fruit and shoot borer. Beyond this, Bt crops are as susceptible to environmental and other financial variables as ordinary crops. Key among these seem to be a farmer’s access to water and the size of land holding — implying financial strength.

Bt cotton in Gujarat is a big success story, but apart from the demise of the pest, the reasons for this, it seems, is that farmers there have much larger land holdings and the region has had good monsoons for six consecutive years. In Vidarbha, where the access to water is dismal, the yields are much less and small farmers continue to commit suicide, even though the American bollworm has been controlled. As Dr Bhargava points out, the danger in using just one kind of seed across geographic regions is that “the capability of a genetic organism is determined by its genetic make-up, but the environment determines the extent to which these capabilities would be converted into abilities.”

The story of Bt cotton indicates other generic worries about Bt crops: the high cost of Bt seeds for small farmers; disappearance of desi seeds; contamination across fields; the rise of secondary pests like the mealybug in cotton; and variable health impacts.

In Bhatinda, for example, almost every Bt cotton farmer TEHELKA spoke to complained of a chronic skin allergy among those who worked the fields. Local doctors confirmed this. In Gujarat, however, there were no such complaints. In Andhra Pradesh, over 2005- 2008, there were complaints of sheep and goats falling ill or dying when allowed to graze on Bt cotton foliage or Bt cotton seeds and seed cake for an extended period of time. The GEAC in January 2008, however, cited reports from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) and the Andhra Animal Husbandry Department which showed “conclusive proof of safety” to animals from Bt cotton feed.

But when a Anthra, a veterinary research organisation, filed an RTI with the IVRI asking for a copy of the report, in shocking proof of the essentially compromised nature of the GEAC — and the influential arm of corporates involved? — the institute responded saying “no studies had been done by them and that the IVRI had not submitted any reports to the GEAC.”

Finally, there is the big question of pests developing resistance. Nature has a way of asserting itself over Man: in many scattered accounts, after the initial 3-4 years, farmers say the American bollworm is making a comeback — a sign that it has become resistant to the Bt gene. The director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur (which has done a comprehensive review of Bt cotton in India, which is soon to be made public), in fact, flagged this capacity for pest resistance and the emergence of new pests as a major area of concern to Jairam Ramesh, even though he supported Bt brinjal.

Worryingly, in Andhra Pradesh, the problem seems much more widespread. Contradicting the claims made for Bt cotton, every farmer TEHELKA interviewed spoke of continuing bollworm incidence in their fields. In fact, a government survey on Bt cotton performance in 2002-2003, the first year it was commercially cultivated in India, and conducted by the Andhra Pradesh Department of Agriculture, found startlingly similar results. Out of 6,949 farmers who opted for Bt cotton that year, the survey covered 3,709 farmers: 3,689 farmers reported bollworm incidence.

The question is, on the one hand, if the most significant trait of Bt seeds is that they reduce the use of chemical pesticide, and on the other, it is becoming apparent that pests are capable of developing a resistance to it — given all the risks and unknowables involved in Bt seeds, is the trade-off worth it? Is the risk worth it?

THE QUESTION of risk, in fact, lies at the heart of the Bt debate. Almost everyone accepts there is a great unknown: one side is willing to jump off the deep end, even if it means fudging the uncomfortable stuff; the other side would like some good reasons.

Given the overall success of the Bt cotton story, there are also very real practical conundrums: confusing cost-benefit ratios. Depending which side of the divide you are on, some people are throwing their weight in with the benefits, others with the costs.

Tempting, therefore, as it is to ascribe motives — given the scale of money involved and Monsanto’s reputation for hectic lobbying and manipulation— it would be unfair to suggest that only monetary considerations is driving the pro-Bt lobby in India. (Though there is enough circumstantial evidence of that). For many good people in the camp, an inexplicable psychological mindset — eagerness versus empiricism; panic; a subservience to things American or Chinese; even genuine belief — might explain it better. As a key protagonist in the government (who wishes to remain anonymous) says, “India is heading for disaster. Our agricultural output is stagnant, but population and per capita consumption is on the rise. Overuse of pesticides has destroyed our top soil. We do not have any more arable land. So, what’s the answer?”

The big food security scare: The pro-Bt community seems to use this fear to bury all their own doubts around GM seeds. Tell them it might be wiser to tackle the issue of food security by tackling the issue of population; or the corruption in the PDS (public distribution system); or confront the fact that, as economist Amartya Sen says, “Starvation in India is a failure of entitlement” — not insufficient production. But it would have no impact. As the unnamed protagonist says fatally, “You cannot base economic policy on the idea that there will be no wastage in the system.”

You could try pointing the lobby to other very convincing and safer alternatives: chances are policy makers would not bite. In the letter sent by civil society and international scientists to the PM and Sonia Gandhi, apart from exposing Prithviraj Chavan’s plagiarism, they flagged the IAASTD Report (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development), a UN and World Bank report ratified by India and 58 other countries in 2008, and perhaps the single largest agricultural research exercise in history.

This report suggests that the real answer to global food security might lie in unglamorous but solid localised solutions. The report, in fact, calls for a systematic redirection of investment, funding, research and policy focus toward alternative technologies, such as agro-ecological methods for recharging groundwater and revitalising soil, modern and conventional plant breeding methods, multi-cropping, etc.

Epitomising tectonic shifts in global trends, in fact, on February 1, current head of UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said that world food security depended upon “getting back to basics” with agriculture.

In stark contrast to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her science adviser Dr Nina Fedoroff — both genetic engineering hawks — Clark emphasised, “I don’t think GE is the solution to the food security problem.” Since the paradigm-changing meeting between President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2006, however, India has signed up with America as a strategic partner in agriculture and food security to usher in a “Second Green Revolution” in India. Given the composition of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture (KIA) authored by the Planning Commission — and in which agri-giants Monsanto, Walmart and Archer Midlands are key board members — it would not be an exaggeration to say American corporations and lobbies are now influencing, if not actually driving, most of the policy thinking on food and agriculture in India.

In a 2008 Vanity Fair article by Donald Barlett and James Steele, Monsanto spokesman Daniel Wallis reported that Monsanto spends more than $ 2million a day on research. In his interview to TEHELKA — defending Monsanto’s practice of patenting seeds and signing contractual agreements with farmers that they will not save and replant seeds the next season — Monsanto India Managing Director, Shukla, says, “We spend Rs 5,000 crore a year to develop and bring new products into the market. Patents are necessary to ensure we are paid for our products and all the investments put into developing these products. Without the protection of patents there would be little incentive for privately-owned companies to pursue and re-invest in innovation.”

With all that money invested and awaiting pay-back; with 85 percent of India’s seed market still waiting to be penetrated — with all the promise and dazzle and burden of that, it is unlikely that anyone in either the Indian or American establishment is ready to go “back to basics” in agriculture. Even if it offers a possible — and perhaps safer — route to food security. But more on the “American hand” later.

IT IS part of the dark irony of the Bt brinjal and Bt cotton story in India — and GM crops in general — that the biggest and most empirical benefit they are supposed to bring is that they reduce the use of chemical pesticides. (In the case of Bt brinjal, the promise is to bring it down from 25 to three sprays.)

Chemical pesticides are now acknowledged as having destroyed top soils; as being extremely inimical to health; and as having an unsustainable carbon footprint. Shukla from Monsanto says that in 2006, studies estimated that farmers growing pest-resistant crops used less chemical sprays — reducing 1.2 billion kg in carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking five lakh cars off the road. (He doesn’t mention the timeframe.)

In the wonder of these numbers, it is easy to forget that back in the 1970s, it was chemical pesticides that were being touted as the “wonder-find” on which the First Green Revolution was ushered into India, in collaboration with the US. Now, conveniently, 30 years too late, chemical pesticides have been declared as Enemy No 1 and pest-resistant GM seeds (with all their uncharted potency for good and evil) are being touted as the ‘wonder- find’ that will combat the ills of the first. The linchpin of the Second Green Revolution launched to destroy the linchpin of the First. Something like GM soya engineered to combat Round Up herbicide. Monsanto, of course, has historically been a major player in both fields: agri-chemicals and GM seeds.

To put things in clearer perspective, Bhatinda in Punjab — the crucible of the First Green Revolution — has emerged as a major cancer-afflicted region. The locals have nicknamed an old train that runs through Bhatinda to Bikaner as the ‘cancer express’. It brims with patients and attendants from rural Punjab going for treatment to the cancer hospital in Bikaner. And now, with pesticide use down and Bt crops up, farmers there are talking of a new affliction: chronic skin allergies.

So, was the risk of the unknown 30 years ago worth it? Should we take a risk again now? “Maybe there are no answers,” says the unnamed pro-Bt protagonist in government, revealing again a kind of entrenched mindset. “Maybe 30 years from now, we’ll discover GM crops do have some ill effects. But do we have an option? It’s true the First Green Revolution has had bad after-effects, but at least we were able to feed our people for 30 years. If you ask me to look back, I’d still say we were right to go with it. Maybe the human race was born to self-destruct, maybe science has no answers. We all know the over-use of fossil fuels is the worst thing we could have inflicted the earth with, but look at the development it brought. Should we turn back the clock? Can we live without our cars and our planes?”

Dr MS Swaminathan himself — considered the “Father of the Green Revolution” — is much more circumspect. Though his own research foundation is working on GM technology, he wrote to Jairam Ramesh congratulating him for his wide-ranging consultations on Bt brinjal. “There are unquestionable benefits in the short-term, but also potential risks to human health and our brinjal heritage in the long term,” he writes. “What is the way forward?” Crucially, voicing the concern of the community cautioning against Bt, he goes on to add, “I have studied our rich genetic wealth in this wonderful crop. What will be the longterm impact of all these numerous local strains being replaced with one or two varieties of the Cry1Ac gene [scientific name for the brinjal Bt gene] from Monsanto?”

Swaminathan then suggests that government institutions and individuals like Dr Anil Gupta of IIM, Ahmedabad, (who maintains a national database on indigenous knowledge and farmers’ innovations) should collect and catalogue the existing genetic variability in brinjal. “Such a collection must be carefully preserved before we permit the extinction of the gifts of thousands of years of natural evolution and human selection.”

This concern with India’s bio-heritage is in direct contrast with the curious and misleading report in the Indian Express on February 24. “Ramesh said Bt will destroy brinjal’s ayurvedic value, experts beg to differ” ran the headline. However, the small print in the story contradicts the paper’s own stand, admitting that brinjal is used in ayurveda and unani and there are insufficient tests to ascertain what effect the Bt gene would have on that.

Given the heightened rhetoric on both sides, it is easy to get cornered into taking black-and-white positions on GM crops. But it is probably unreasonable to do that. By many accounts, genetically modified crops can be potentially very useful and can take many routes. It would be short-sighted therefore to equate Bt crops — which is injected with the specific Bt gene — with GM crops in general. The real issues lie elsewhere. Some of these have already been documented in great detail here: the threat to human health, lacuna in testing and regulation, and the recklessness, lack of transparency and unseemly hurry that is propelling the field.

But there are other far-reaching concerns: the threat to bio-diversity; seed sovereignty; and paradigm-shifts taking place in India’s regulatory regimes. The Mangal Pandey scale.

ACCORDING TO sources, in a secret National Security Review in 2007, it was accepted that as far as issues of “national security” went, the agricultural security of the country would be deemed equivalent to armed security.

“You have to understand the stakes involved,” says Bhargava, who incidentally was instrumental in setting up the Department of Biotechnology, an event he now calls “one of the biggest mistakes of his life”. “It is a widely known fact that 62 percent of Indians are sustained by agriculture and 70 percent live in villages. If any company or cartel of companies controls seed production and the agri-chemical production in India,” says Bhargava, “it, in effect, controls India.” Even Jairam Ramesh, in his document citing reasons for his moratorium, urged Parliament to have a detailed debate and “give serious thought to the strategic importance of the seed industry.”

Indian farmers have cross-bred, developed, saved and exchanged seeds over millennia. What will it mean to turn this entire culture on its head and hand over control of seed production and the farmers’ right to use seeds over to an American giant, or even to the Indian private sector? (In the US, where Monsanto and a few other corporations control large swathes of American farming, a whole new and alien vocabulary has sprung up: “Franken seeds”, referring to the unknown and potentially demonic nature of GM seeds and their capacity to contaminate other fields; “seed police”, referring to Monsanto’s practice of sending out aggressive foot-soldiers to ensure no small farmer violates its patents; “seed piracy”, referring to farmers who follow ancient but now illegal practices of re-sowing or bartering seeds from season to season. High yields obviously come at a very high price.)

Sitting in his office early one morning, Ramesh says pointedly, “In the early 1990s, anyone who opposed Enron in India was deemed anti-national, anti-power, and plain scare-mongering. We should all remember how that went.” It is true. Scornful as some may be about those who hold conspiracy theories about the “American hand in India’s belly”, or the idea that Indian bureaucrats and politicians may be “handing over” control to American companies to the detriment of the nation, the evidence of influential American lobbying in India is difficult to dismiss.

The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture (KIA) — set up under the aegis of the Planning Commission and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be the harbinger of a Second Green Revolution in India — is the most visible face of this lobbying. A minister who was part of the PM’s early conversations about the KIA says, “The Prime Minister’s idea was to revitalise Indian research institutions and agricultural universities — like the ones in Pantnagar, Dharwad, Coimbatore and Varanasi — through collaboration with American universities, along the lines of the First Green Revolution. Along the way, it transformed into something else. I don’t think its current form is what he intended.”

A senior bureaucrat involved in architecting the KIA scoffs at the idea of an American conspiracy but admits it was very difficult to overcome conflicts of interest. “There is almost no agricultural research in America now that is not funded by the private sector,” he said. So it is that Monsanto, Archer Midland and Walmart came to be on the KIA board.

But conflict of interest is precisely what distrust of the “American MNC hand” is justifiably based on. In an article in the Economic and Political Weekly (November 2008), Kavitha Kuruganti, who works with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Secunderabad, analysed the minutes of the KIA’s board meetings to track some of the recent American interventions in India’s agriculture sector.

“While some amount of Indo-US joint research seemed underway,” she wrote, “a major thrust area of the KIA was to change important regulatory regimes pertaining to agriculture in India.” In more than two board meetings, she notes, express points were made on how the private sector could provide more inputs for the regulatory process. Given that regulation in the private sector, particularly in agriculture, is largely meant to protect interests of consumers and producers, the irony in allowing private players to determine the shape of these regulations cannot be more apparent.

There is a polite new term going around for this: “harmonisation of legislation”: euphemism for nudging Indian regulations to serve American (and Indian) corporate interest. The bio-safety rules observed by the GEAC, for instance, were apparently recast under a US funded programme, to “harmonise” with the more generic international Codex Alimentarius guidelines. This allowed the GEAC not only to bypass many important tests and procedures being prescribed by conscientious members of the GEAC, but also allowed it to throw out many tests that were being conducted in India earlier.

“No wonder Monsanto and Mahyco say so sanguinely ‘We will follow government rules’,” says Bhargava. Little surprise then, adds Kuruganti, that the EC2 report was replete with comments like — “As per the recently adopted guidelines, such studies do not form part of safety assessment” or that something is “not required” as per the new guidelines. The US, which is the largest cultivator of GM crops in the world, has found it difficult to penetrate many parts of the world market. It is in this context that it has started looking at Indian GM regulations, especially the 1989 Environment Protection Act, and terming it as “vague” and “broader than any existing regulation in the world”.

One recent example of shifts in GM food regulations cited by Kuruganti illustrates how pressure works. In April 2006, the Indian Ministry of Commerce had issued a notification requiring all food import consignments to be certified for their GM status. The US objected to this in the Technical Barriers to Trade committee in the WTO in May 2006 as discrimination and asked for its suspension. India complied in July 2006, and changed its regulation for soyabean-related imports. This nudging and harmonising and pressurising spills over into many other key areas of legislation: the Biological Diversity Act, 2002; the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, Indian patent regimes in agriculture, seed regulation, contract farming etc.

In an interesting aside, America’s aggression and zeal for GM crops becomes particularly fascinating, when it is widely known that US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle have an organic garden growing in the White House — refuge from their own agricultural policy perhaps? And according to unverified popular lore, Monsanto apparently does not use GM foods in its own cafetarias! Attempts to speak to Suman Bery, an economist on the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, on India’s policies on GM crops earned a curious answer. “You’ll have to speak to experts,” Bery said politely. “Asking me to comment on it is like asking a paedeatrician to comment on a gall bladder!” Bery might have forgotten for a moment that children also have gall bladders, much like the issue of GM crops is germane to all Indian citizens. But his comment serves well to emphasise the GM debate is being corralled by “experts” into an opaque shed.

AT THE end, perhaps the Bt brinjal issue is finally about trust and the old chasm between public sector and private sector: the idea of public interest versus a private interest that is unheeding of the larger good. On the flip side, there are those who would argue, the divide is about the lethargy of the public sector versus the energy and zeal of the private sector (even if it is driven by the profit motive).

But as Dr Arjula Reddy — the co-chairman of the expert committee who Bhargava believes succumbed to pressure — says, “This whole debate is complicated by Monsanto phobia.”

He could be partly right. Monsanto has an unenviable reputation in the world. A simple Google search would reveal why. Quite apart from the stories of its “seed police” and legal bullying, Monsanto has left an irresponsible footprint of environmental destruction, culpable callousness, and willful suppression of information in its wake. According to Vanity Fair, it is now held potentially responsible for 50 environmentally ravaged sites in the US.

The Vanity Fair documents two horrifying incidents that explain why. As it says, the future of the company may lie in seeds, but the seeds of the company lie in chemicals. From 1929 to 1995, when Monsanto was still dominantly an industrial and agro-chemicals company, it operated a chemical plant in Nitro, West Virginia. In 1948, the plant began to produce a powerful herbicide called 2,4,5-T or plain “weed bug”. A by-product of this was a highly toxic substance called dioxin. In 1949, there was a massive explosion in this plant. Confidential medical reports at the time said the explosion “caused systemic intoxication in workers involving most major organ systems”. Doctors who examined four of the worst affected workers say they believe the men were “excreting a foreign chemical from their skin”. Court records indicate 226 workers became ill. But Monsanto downplayed all this saying the contaminant had caused “only an irritation of the skin.”

In the 1960s, the same plant manufactured the infamous Agent Orange, which was deployed in the Vietnam War to defoliate hundreds of acres of trees. As with Monsanto’s older herbicides, a by-product of this was dioxin. Monsanto was later one of the companies named in a $180 million settlement for war veterans exposed to Agent Orange. As for the plant’s waste — it was dumped in landfills and storm drains and burnt in incinerators. Monsanto stopped producing dioxin in Nitro in 1969, but the toxic chemical can apparently still be found there. In 1981, some former Nitro employees sued the company for knowingly exposing them to toxic chemicals that caused long-term health problems. Monsanto settled out of court with them in 1988.

Again, according to Vanity Fair, between 1929 to 1971, Monsanto ran a chemical plant in Anniston, Alabama, which produced PCBs, a wonder industrial coolant, which had highly toxic side-effects. Though it knew the nature of this chemical, Monsanto routinely dumped its waste in open landfills and allowed it to run into the local stream. For years, Anniston residents lived, breathed and drank this toxic waste. In 1966, a reseacher for Monsanto found that fish introduced into the stream turned on their sides in 10 seconds and were dead in three-and-a-half minutes. Court case documents prove Monsanto knew about this, but it wasn’t until 1970, when the US Food and Drug Administration got hold of a confidential internal company memo that said “FYI and destroy”, that this became public. This memo spoke of local public authorities who had been persuaded to “handle the problem quietly without release of information to the public at this time”. In 2003, after a protracted battle, Monsanto and its associate company agreed to clean up Anniston and pay $550 million to 21,000 residents.

In the late 1970s, Monsanto began to move away from chemicals and invested in bio-technical research. In 1982, it struck gold when it became the first to create a successful genetically- modified plant. By the late 1990s, Monsanto had rebranded itself as a “life sciences” company. To slough off its uncomfortable past, it spun-off its chemical and fibres operations into a new company called Solutia. In 2002, Monsanto formally re-incorporated itself and declared itself an “agricultural company”.

IN A sense, much like this, in India, Monsanto has tried to sidestep its past reputation by making Raju Barewala’s Mahyco the face of Bt brinjal. But few want to buy the story. Not only has Mahyco bought the technology from Monsanto, Monsanto also has a 26 percent stake in Mahyco. Further, Mahyco and Monsanto also have another 50:50 joint venture company which jointly markets Bt cotton. Finally, though Monsanto’s PR statement on Bt brinjal asserts that reports that suggest Bt brinjal is produced by Monsanto “and/or in partnership with Mahyco are untrue and not based on facts”, it sees no contradiction in going on to assert that Bt brinjal is the “most rigorously tested vegetable with 25 environmental bio-safety studies. done on it.” While the shambolic story of Bt brinjal and the way it was tested has already been told, one could still pose an elementary question to Monsanto: if it is so distanced and uninvolved in the producing of Bt brinjal, how can it vouch so confidently for its integrity?

As this story goes to press, the Prime Minister has just concluded a meeting with Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, HRD minister Kapil Sibal, Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh — prompted by a six-page letter from Pawar to the PM opposing Ramesh’s moratorium. Agency reports say the PM has backed Ramesh and asked for further testing but has also asked for a limited time-frame within which these should be concluded. The juggernaut has started to move again. The PM, reportedly, has also decided to push through the highly controversial NBRAI. In his document, Jairam Ramesh had said he hoped his moratorium would allow time for serious thought on the essential riddle facing the country: how do we retain public and farmer control over India’s seed industry — and by extension its sovereignty — even as we harness and encourage private energy and investment in agricultural biotechnology? Above all, how do we ensure there is a regulatory regime that is above suspicion?

India is at a crucial threshold; the PM has his hand on the door handle. Whatever decision he and his political establishment make will have far-reaching and cataclysmic consequences for India, for generations to come. Bt brinjal is only the outrider: behind it is stacked an army that promises to change the landscape of India as we historically know it. The political class must think deeply about what shape they are willing to unleash this outrider in — because whatever decision they make promises to be irreversible.

With additional reporting by Samrat Chakrabarti, Sanjana, Rana Ayyub and Brijesh Pandey