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The Colour Purple

The debate over transgenic crops continues to rage as India's first GM food crop, brinjal, gets ready for release. Meena Menon

"There was no barrier around the whole field and I visited the field five times, which should not have been allowed," said Selvam. R. Selvam, president of the Erode District Organic Farmers Federation

First cotton; now brinjal. Both have their centre of origin in India and this must be one of the few countries where there has been very little debate on the safety or even necessity of genetically modified (GM) crops. While Bt cotton is already grow n in India, there are growing protests against the release of India’s first GM food crop: brinjal.

In one sense, India shares with other countries the rather dubious record of not sharing data on the safety of transgenic crops. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) maintains that all research data is up on its website.

However, Divya Raghunandan of Greenpeace had to file a Right to Information (RTI) petition to demand the reports of bio-safety and other tests. While the Chief Information Commissioner has ordered the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to part with the information, the DBT has shown a marked reluctance to do so, insisting that the records were voluminous and she should inspect it under supervision in the office.

A non-compliance petition was filed before the CIC and once again the DBT was directed to give the information. Meanwhile Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (MAHYCO) got a stay from the Delhi High Court.

In February, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in Coimbatore had banners across its entrance saying it was now owned by Monsanto. This was after farmers found that it was conducting field trials of transgenic brinjal being developed by Monsanto’s partner MAHYCO on the campus.


R. Selvam, president of the Erode District Organic Farmers Federation, wrote to the GEAC listing the violations in the field trials at TNAU. He said the prime violation was the refugia or the buffer zone stipulation. Instead of five rows there were two rows, and that too with a lot of gaps. Another major violation was that the brinjals were dumped in an abandoned well, instead of being burnt.

"There was no barrier around the whole field and I visited the field five times, which should not have been allowed,” said Selvam. He says the University is maintaining a germ plasm of traditional brinjal varieties, which is why the trial of transgenic brinjal is absolutely unacceptable. The priorities of research are totally misplaced, he pointed out. “Millions of coconut trees are infected with termites in the state but the University is conducting trials of Bt brinjal.”

Dr. Veeraraghavan Thatam, Dean, TNAU Horticultural College and Research Institute, Coimbatore, said that it was very difficult to convince people about the science of transgenic crops, which only helped give crops resistance to pests. He said transgenic brinjal was designed to resist the fruit and shoot borer, which often decimated the crop.

He said all the rules set by the Department of Biotechnology were adhered to and the tested brinjals were incinerated. The research studies are on the website and people were free to read it, he pointed out. The GEAC, in turn, said that it would examine all aspects of the issue and only then take a decision.

While field trials of GM crops are in progress since five years or so, very little information was available till Greenpeace filed an RTI petition. In 2005, for the first time, there was a clear picture of the genetic experiments on food crops being conducted in India. There were 21 different food crops being engineered, mainly rice, brinjal, okra, tomato, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard, groundnut, pigeon pea, potato, corn.

Almost all these crops have been engineered with the insect resistant gene (Cry1 Ac) also referred to as the Bt gene.

Lack of Information

In fact Aruna Rodrigues' petition in the Supreme Court was spurred by concerns on lack of information on biosafety and regulation. In India, before a GM crop can be commercialised, it must go through glasshouse trials, then two years of multi-location research trials in open fields and then large-scale trials. Only transgenic brinjal has reached the stage of large-scale trials.

On May 8, 2007, the Court directed that there must be 200 meters isolation distance between the trial fields and the neighbouring fields cultivating the same crop to avoid contamination. The GEAC will examine this issue and prescribe the isolation distance depending upon the nature of the crop.

Two intervening applications in the Supreme Court complained that the data regarding toxicity and allergenicity have not been placed in public domain by those conducting the trials, with regard to nine crops to be field tested.

While the government told the apex court that, as regards Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, required data has already been put on the website; in regard to seven other crops, data is being collected and as soon as the full data is available with the GEAC, it would be put on the website.

Greenpeace points out that field trials are open-air experiments conducted in fields. They pose a risk to the environment and health because these untested GM plants could cross pollinate and contaminate nearby crops, and related wild varieties. Rice exporters protested against the testing of GM rice in the basmati growing areas last year and the government took a policy decision not to allow field trials in basmati growing areas. It has already stopped transgenic research in basmati rice.

Even in the case of Bt cotton, field trials between 1995 and 2001 were supposed to evaluate the economic, social and environmental impact. But an illegal Bt cotton hybrid was found growing on over 10,000 acres in Gujarat, which completely exposed the lack of regulation.

In 2005, 21 civil society organisations across six states across the country formed the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) since the one set up by the government was not doing its job. The MEC documented 19 cases of field trial violations where farmers mixed the field trial produce with non-GM cotton and sold it in the market.

Already, transgenic rice, groundnut, brinjal, okra, tomato, groundnut cauliflower and cabbage are being tested in India.

While civil society groups are stepping up pressure with all-India protests, it is time the government reviewed its experience with transgenic cotton before embarking on clearing other crops.