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Crabs Cheer While Foxes Feast On Baingan Bharta

Natteri Adigal, MeriNews, Feb 10, 2010
'Enterprising farmers of Gujarat didn't wait for GEAC's approval to cultivate Bt cotton. They defied the 'ban', buying seeds from black market and prospered. After all farmers don't need babus and eco-activists to tell what is good for them.'

THERE IS no disagreement at all that Bt brinjal (aubergine) is capable of resisting several insect pests. It increases yield of fruits substantially even while drastically reducing the use of pesticide.

Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, a body of scientists working for the Department of Biotechnology had conducted a review of results of field trials of the transgenic hybrid eggplant developed by Mahyco, a subsidiary of global seed giant Monsanto. GEAC could only satisfy itself that broadly indicated standard procedures were followed for trials. The DOB obviously does not possess the resources to conduct research involving huge development costs. The MNC giant, on the other hand, could attract and retain talented scientists- several of them Indians - and provide them the facilities they needed.

GEAC recommended to the government in October 2009, that Bt brinjal could be commercially released. Four months and several tumultuous, highly publicised consultation meetings later, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has announced a 'moratorium' on its 'commercial release'.

The 'public consultations' in seven cities were a gimmick to get some media publicity for Ramesh. Some 8000 activists - most of them city-bred socialites with absolutely no knowledge of agriculture or biotechnology - attended the meetings. The scenes they made were projected by the media as stiff resistance from farmers.

"The moratorium will last 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," according to a release from his ministry.

The period would ostensibly be used to commission fresh scientific studies and reform the testing process. The minister said, "If you need long term toxicity tests, then you must do it, no matter how long it takes... There is no hurry. There is no overriding urgency or food security argument for Bt brinjal." The government will apparently use the moratorium period to restore public confidence and trust in the Bt brinjal product. "If it can't be done, so be it," Ramesh said.

The minister who has already made his fortunes doesn't realise that while there is no hurry for government-paid bureaucrats, the farmer is in a tearing hurry to reduce mounting cost of pesticides and risk of crop failure. The actual effect of the 'moratorium' will be only to give a breather to the pesticides lobby and to line certain officials' pockets.

The fate of the 'ban' can be predicted from what happened to Bt cotton perfected by the same company based on a decade of intense research. It was ready for release by the turn of the century but it too became a victim of resistance from vested interests, albeit not so loud.

Although trials proved that cotton crop worth millions could be saved from the dreaded weevil infestation dependably even while drastically reducing pesticide costs, clearance was held up for four years. By the time the Central government formally released it, enterprising farmers, particularly in well-off states like Gujarat, had taken their own decision about cultivating the variety.

As happens in any market, bureaucratic prohibition on advanced technology was circumvented. The stakeholders can't afford to wait indefinitely as it may take decades to address all safety issues. Even as the minions of GEAC threatened to burn their 'illegal' crop, a couple of successful crops were harvested. The farmers didn't mind paying black-market rates for seeds because the savings in pesticides far exceeded the extra cost.

The pesticides lobby, whose survival is threatened while the farmer prospers by opting BT crops, understandably, has vested interest in delaying adoption. The other vested interests benefiting from the prohibition are black market traders of seeds. Eco-terrorists operating from posh offices and shuttling in air-conditioned cars derive wide publicity from their budgets, but the farmers know what is good for them.

Incidentally, Union ministers of environment, agriculture and science and technology and the Prime Minister's office have openly supported immediate release. Obviously, the company has already taken care of their concerns.

Just like almost 80 per cent of cotton from India today is under Bt variety, it can be safely predicted that the 'moratorium' can't last long with regard to other crops. Possibly, farmers will stop cultivating fringe varieties of eggplants in three to four years.

Gujarat's share of aubergine production, currently around 12 per cent of India's consumption, may have tripled by the time the formal clearance comes. Till then, pesticide manufacturers will get a breather for survival in other states. Bureaucrats and politicians at the state level can have a field day, receiving usual kickbacks. As for states like Gujarat, black market will flourish in seeds.

It should be clear foxes are set to feast out of the ubiquitous eggplant. Ignorant consumers with a crab mentality who cares little for the farmers' interests will go on cheering the foxes for some period. But, eventually, technology can't be held in ransom for long to satisfy fanatical activists and vested interests.

Bt Brinjal Bytes Times of India, Feb. 11, 2010  

Biotechnology can revolutionise food production. So, flat-earthers in science and society shouldn't be allowed to oppose transgenic crops for opposition's sake. Approval or rejection of genetically modified food crops should be based on scientific grounds. However, it can't be anyone's case that Bt brinjal's debut on India's market is an immediate imperative overriding all other concerns. Taking the final call, environment minister Jairam Ramesh reversed the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's (GEAC) go-ahead. His caution is understandable. In general, the scientific jury's still out on GM foods' health impact. So, case-by-case vetting of new inventions is unavoidable even if it means delays and disappointments.

Another concern about commercial cultivation is possible genetic contamination of non-GM crops should GM foods be grown without proper safeguards. Educating farmers on use of transgenic crops is key, as highlighted by the fact many Bt cotton growers in India are yet to get the necessary training. Moreover, Bt brinjal's developer conducted tests on it. So, GEAC, the statutory authority okaying GM crops, depended on data from business stakeholders in Bt brinjal's commercialisation. This information requires external checks. A cautious and transparent process of approval, therefore, would be needed in this case.

Ramesh can claim he used his judgement to place a temporary "moratorium" on Bt brinjal. He can't say the same about his suggestion that private sector research in biotech is somehow less good, reliable or public-spirited than public sector research. He claims research in seeds is as "strategic as space or nuclear research". The counter-argument is that strategic sectors are precisely those needing top quality R&D, which isn't exactly the public sector's trademark. Defence, for instance, is 'strategic' but consider the army's underwhelming experience with the battle tank Arjun, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. The Tejas, touted as an indigenously built light combat aircraft, was on HAL's drawing board in the 1980s. It's yet to be inducted into the air force.

India needs an independent biotech regulatory body and a protocol for trials on products and techniques that may be sourced from anywhere. Indeed, the more private sector participation we see in agriculture, the more money there'll be for high grade R&D and the more tech-friendly the sector will be. Ramesh, however, eulogises public sector research as having driven the Green Revolution. He should, then, assuage worries about excessive reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, thought to be the Green Revolution's negative legacy making 'organic' farming look good to many today. This isn't to say the Green Revolution wasn't hugely beneficial. It was. This is to show how easy it is to pick holes in Ramesh's argument.

A leftist editorial commends the decision

Ramesh says agbiotech should belong only in the the public sector

Stressing that India needed to look at its seed industry, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh today said he believed in the fundamental primacy of the public sector seed industry. "The first Indian public sector Bt cotton is in the market and we can't depend on private sector biotechnology in agriculture, which is different from that in health. Biotechnology in agriculture must remain overwhelmingly with the public sector," he said.

(If that were to be the case, Indian farmers would have waited another ten years for Bt cotton and would not have been as good either.  The statement flies in the face of contribution of the Indian seed industry in the past decade - CSP)