Fbae Logo
Home | | Support Us | Contact Us
Goals & Objectives Our Position False Propaganda Special Topics Important Publications Important Links Events news Biosafety
Fbae Header Home




The Brinjal Battles
Rahul Jayaram

CALCUTTA, India - It’s an unlikely candidate for controversy, but the lowly brinjal is at the heart of a battle. The issues at stake: whether agricultural and pharmaceutical companies should share classified data (read: trade secrets) with the government and independent watchdogs. The two sides in this joust: the Indian partner of a US-based biotech firm that’s trying to ease in a new version of a genetically modified (GM) brinjal, on the one side, and the environmental group Greenpeace and, indirectly, the Central Information Commission (CIC), on the other.

Last month, the Maharashtra-based Mahyco, the Indian partner of US agro-biotech firm Monsanto, moved the Delhi High Court against a CIC order seeking details of the safety test data generated during clinical trials of its GM brinjal — the first GM edible crop that is to be introduced in India.

Greenpeace had first filed the suit against Mahyco two years ago, invoking the Right to Information (RTI) Act, asking for details about its safety. But the case, Greenpeace claims, has shown the other side of the RTI, which has been hailed as a revolutionary initiative in contemporary India.

“The RTI may have been one of the most people-empowering ideas in the country,” says Divya Raghunandan of Greenpeace who filed the first suit against Mahyco in February 2006, “but it has attributes which makes it prone to manipulation and obfuscation, especially by companies. Our legal experience with Mahyco attests to that.”

The suit begs several questions of the RTI. Is it too open-ended? Are its clauses stacked in favour of companies? Does its functioning need to be addressed? Mahyco, on its part, has declined to share its views on the issue. “We cannot comment on this issue,” said a senior Mahyco official.

At the heart of this matter is the public’s right to access information regarding what food will be on its plate in the future. Mahyco has plans to first bring in the GM brinjal, followed by genetically modified varieties of mustard and rice. Greenpeace and others involved in the case argue that the fact that Mahyco has dilly dallied about revealing data makes the matter suspicious.

To be sure, such battles are not new in the West. Monsanto’s reputation took a hit when a variety of its GM corn seeds was slapped with a ban in Germany last May. The German federal ministry had then stated that Monsanto’s MON 810 corn seeds posed a danger to the environment and that the company hadn’t given the agriculture ministry a detailed crop monitoring plan. Mahyco, Greenpeace contends, seems to be treading the same path.

But Mahyco has regularly invoked Section 8.1d of the RTI Act, which gives companies the right to withhold information which may let out a trade secret or infringe intellectual property rights unless it’s proved that the disclosure of such information is essential to the interests of the public at large.

What is more, Rajya Sabha MP and agricultural leader Sharad Joshi is sceptical about the environmentalists’ efforts, stressing that such cases hamper development. “GM seeds may or may not be as productive as other seeds. But they are not designed to be harmful in the way they are understood to be,” says the founder of the peasant organisation, Shetkari Sanghatana, “Throughout history organisations and individual groups have opposed modernity. When factories came, they opposed them, saying these would kill agriculture. When trains came they opposed them, saying that they would harm the environment. When computers came they said they would take away all the jobs. But look at what happened — India progressed. These are regressive forces.”

Others demur. “Of course such disclosure is essential. It’s about food, about public health. There can be no compromise on that,” says activist Nikhil Dey of the National Campaign for Right to Information (NCPRI). “When you’re confident about the nature of your product, you won’t hesitate revealing what it’s like or what it’s made of. If you’re iffy about it, people raise eyebrows... This is the profit motive talking.” NCPRI is a movement of committed individuals working towards making the Indian government and society more transparent and accountable. It had a big hand in pushing for RTI and consists of noted activists like Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh and Dey.

As for the question of protecting intellectual property rights, Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who is the lawyer for Greenpeace, is quick to point out that “there are no patent rights for GM products in India as of now. So that argument is not tenable”. R. Jai Krishna, a Greenpeace campaigner for sustainable agriculture, stresses that data obtained from the field tests conducted by Mahyco can be copyrighted, not patented. Information can be copyrighted, products are patented. In any case, Indian law doesn’t have any provision for patenting GM products as yet. The larger point that emerges is how the case appears to have allowed Mahyco to use different provisions within the RTI to shift positions and give summaries of field reports, not hard data.

Yet Greenpeace and other activists are not pushing for changes to the RTI. “I wouldn’t recommend touching the broad framework,” says Dey, “but I’d like to see more specific expert input in the legal system. The inherent bias towards company rights needs checks, and should have riders added whenever required.”

Jai Krishna suggests that an interesting way to work around this is to keep a watch on related monitoring bodies as well. “The issue is the functioning of the RTI and the agents that make this happen, not the RTI per se,” he emphasises.

For example, in the current case the data given out by Mahyco whenever instructed to do so — which Greenpeace anyway feels isn’t entirely relevant to the safety aspect —were studied by a review committee appointed by the department for biotechnology (DBT) under the order of the CIC. But “a government-appointed review committee must have people who are asking the right questions, analysing the right data and doing the right tests”, he says.

“In May 2007, the DBT provided only the result summaries of the data that are derived from the data for genetically engineered brinjal. Also, it directed the appellant to go to the ministry of environment and forests and take down the thousands of pages of data under the supervision of an officer. No data were given on the other three crops — rice, okra and mustard,” he says.

But K.K. Tripathi of the review committee on genetic manipulation (RCGM) of the DBT, and part of the review committee on the case, is unaffected by any finger pointing. He’s also very noncommittal. “We are doing what is asked of us by the CIC. There’s a process in place and we adhere to it. The results of the tests and data analyses are routinely put out. The high court will decide what is to be done,” he says.

But one thing is for sure. Little did we know a brinjal could have the potential to stir up the Indian legal system. Call it vegetable power?

Copyright © 2008 The Telegraph.

Source: The Telegraph India

Related News Articles

Influence of Transgenosis on the Plant-Insect- Relationships, in Particular on Chemically       Mediated Interactions

Effect of Transgenes Conferring Enhanced Pathogen Resistance on the Interaction with Symbiotic        Fungi in Rice

Impact on the Soil Ecosystem through Natural and Genetically Engineered Organisms:
      Effects, Methods and Definition of Damage as Contribution to Risk Assessment

The Decomposition of Bt-Corn on the Fields and its Impact on Earthworms and on other        Macroorganisms in the Soil

Environmental Post-market Monitoring of Bt-maize:
       Approaches to Detect Potential Effects on Butterflies and Natural Enemies

Columns by Dan Gardner

Against the Grains: 'The Terminator Hoax '

Decisions taken in the 84th Meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee

Brazilian Health Biotech: Fostering Crosstalk Between Public and Private Sectors

Biotechnology Related Article Appeared on 'Samyukta Karnataka' ( Regional Language )
June 12, 2008.

Nothing Left to the Imagination

The Politics of GM Food
Kirit S Javali

Hi-tech seed factories: Sowing Seeds of Success

"Indian Seed Industry is Well Placed to Serve Both Domestic and International Markets"
Dr MK Sharma,
Managing Director,
Mahyco Monsanto

"If we Facilitate Seed Industry, we Facilitate Growth in Agriculture"
Dr Govind Garg,
Krishidhan Seeds

Metagenomics: Window to the Microbial Universe

Few Checks to Prevent Entry of GM Food

Gene Campaign Criticises India’s ‘Silence’ at Global Bio-Safety Meet

An Enforceable International Compact for Infectious Diseases

"Indian Science in Genomics has been Able to Place Itself on the Global Map"

Indian Gene Decoded

The Development of RNAi as a Therapeutic Strategy

FAO E-Conference on Biotechnologies and Water Scarcity

Genetic Landscape

Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture

RH Nature Reviews Genetics 08- Opposition to Transgenic Technologies

Germany: Discussion Paper of German Ag-Industry about EU Biotech Policy Implications

Bt maize performance in Spain

Arsenic speciation varies with type of rice

Why I Am Bothered by Neo-Colonialist NGOs

China experts identify gene for yield, height in rice

The French government has called for a debate on the review of the EU
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has also repeatedly criticised the EU for "undue delays" in the authorisation of GMOs. See the latest WTO ruling:

The legal bans are in France, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Greece.

EU delays decision on approving more GM crops

UCR Geneticist Plays Scientific Advisor to Movie about “Love, Adventure and ... Genetically Modified Rice”

Gujrat worst-hit by illegal Bt cotton production

Farmers seek ban on GM crops

Call for policing
Ijaz Ahmed Rao discusses the virtues of a bio-safety framework for genetically modified crops, now that they have become farmers’ favourite

Stem cells: The 3-billion-dollar question

Genes as the solution

Food crisis spurs research spending

Global Food Crisis / UN / Bilingual Transcript of Statements by Secretary-General, Heads of Concerned Agencies, and Response to Questions at Press Conference on Global Food CrisisGM Crops, A World View

Mass Protests against GM Crops in IndiaInterference at the EPA

Open letter to Robert B. Zoellick, President, World BankNew BT variety may push short staple cotton output.

The future of agricultural biotechnology: Creative, destruction, adoption, or irrelevance? ICABR Conference 2008

Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.

Prof. Kameswara Rao and Dr. T.M. Manjunath's Participation in 2008 Biotech Activities

Scrutinizing Industry-Funded Science: The Crusade Against Conflicts of Interest

LEADER: Nurturing nanotech

Center for Indigenous Knowledge for Agriculture and Rural Development

Scientists find potential schistosomiasis treatment

Islamic conference boosts S&T with new resolutions

Mexico publishes GM approval guidelines

Uganda 'close to stamping out Hib meningitis'

New method 'prevents spread of GM plants'

Social factors 'help women with post-tsunami stress'

Women scientists celebrated in new charter

Sub-Saharan Africa news in brief: 13–25 March

Brazil creates US$18 million fund for young scientists

Health weeks 'powerful tools' for deworming children

Rotavirus vaccine, not treatment, 'cheaper for Panama'