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Genetically Engineered Crops In The Election Politics Of India
C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
Bangalore, India

Presently, Bt cotton containing the Cry 1 Ac gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is the only commercialized genetically engineered (GE) crop in India.  According to a report on the ‘Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops:2008’ published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the cultivation of Bt cotton in India has increased from 0.5 mill hectares in 2002 to 7.6 mill hectares in 2008, which strongly indicates that the Indian farmers have ignored the activist noises and accepted the Bt cotton for its benefits.  From 2002 to 2008, Indian Bt cotton scenario changed rapidly in terms of the number of Bt farmers, approved hybrids (three to about 150), transgenic events (one to five) and seed companies (one to over 30). During this period, farmer profits increased between 50 to 110 per cent, yield increased between 30 to 60 per cent and the pesticide use reduced by over 50 per cent, benefitting about five million resource poor farmers.  India is now the second largest cotton grower in the world within a short span of 7 years, thanks solely to Bt cotton. The country has greatly enhanced its cotton export.

The antitech activists have now sensed the loss of their protracted battle against Bt cotton, and shifted the focus to Bt brinjal (aubergine, eggplant) and other GE vegetable crops in advanced stages of development. Bt brinjal containing the same Bt gene Cry 1 Ac as in cotton is developed against the shoot and fruit borer of brinjal that causes enormous losses both to the farmer and the consumer. Bt brinjal is awaiting the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercial release.  If the Bt brinjal is successful, and finds favor with farmers and consumers, several other Bt crops now in advanced stages of development would be commercialized, and the major battle to prevent GE food crops from becoming an important component in the Indian agriculture will be lost.
The activist groups have filed two ‘Writ Petitions’ (WP) in the Supreme Court of India (SCI), demanding a moratorium against the development of GE crops in India.  The activists are now struggling to halt the regulatory process, so that this will preclude commercial release, not just for the period of moratorium if sanctioned by the SCI, but several years after it was lifted. They also insist on implementation of regulatory tests, designed by one of their ‘scientist” faces’, which is said to take some 20 years to complete, so that the process of GE crop development in India would be halted for over a quarter of a century. In either case, it would be a death knell on GE crops in India, which is certainly against the interests of the country.

Fortunately, the SCI has adopted a balanced view, and earlier permitted field trials of certain GE crops. Now, during the hearing of the WPs on April 29, 2009, the Bench observed that ‘GM seeds could possibly be a means to eradicate hunger and poverty. The SC observed that poverty is probably more dangerous than the side effects of GM seeds’. 

On the submission by the Petitioners, the SCI Bench suggested an intense working of the existing regulatory regime and asked the Government to consider setting up of a National Centre for Assessment of GMOs.  The Government rightly replied that there are already several laboratories set up in various Universities which are doing research work on GM.  Over a dozen public sector and other institutions are now involved in biosafety evaluation of GE crops, supervised by the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) before the GEAC takes the final decisions on the open field trials and commercialization.  It is impossible for a single centre to handle the entire biosafety regulatory process. The idea of setting up a national center for testing GM is an absolutely a waste and redundant. It will only create another bureaucratic set up and there is no guarantee that it will do any better than all labs and universities that already do. This is a bolder-dash idea of the SC appointed “expert” on GEAC.

The Petitioners seem to have also suggested constituting an expert committee on lines of a 1997 Committee for the regulation of hazardous wastes constituted on the orders of the SCI, but this is superfluous and wholly irrelevant to GE crops.  Drs. MS Swaminathan and Raghunath Mashelkar committees' were set up years ago, and based on their recommendations a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority is being set up once the bill is passed by the parliament. All these suggestions of the activists follow a very simple tactic of the likes of them all over the world. That is to delay, obfuscate, raise the regulatory bar, etc. just to frustrate the technology develops to quit. This should not be allowed to happen. In fact, the SC must dismiss these WPs forthwith as frivolous and a waste of precious court’s time.

In this Lok Sabha elections, disappointed with the results of their anti-GM campaigns activists are putting pressure on political parties to ban GM crops technology. As reported widely in the Indian Press on April 30, 2009, except for the Congress party, the leading member of the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, all other parties fell in and expressed anti-GE sentiments in their election manifestoes. The political parties might have considered it expedient to accede to the activist demands in return for electoral support. In an extremely volatile electoral situation where no party is confident of their poll prospects, the chances of coming to power and to be bound to a pre-poll promise are bleak. The statements of the political parties do not sound like total opposition, but that GE crops would not be allowed ‘without full scientific data on long term effects on soil, production, and biological impact on consumers. This implies the lack of scientific data on the safety of GE crops in development, which is not true and reflects the ignorance or deliberate indifference of these parties to the biosafety regulatory process in India. Then how long is a ‘long term’?  Even now biosafety evaluation takes over nine years, which is actually longer than necessary.  The major objective of current procedures of biosafety evaluation is to ensure that GE products are safe to the consumers.  How does one assess long term impact on consumers directly?  Some parties demand labeling of GE foods, which is not a bad idea even if it is difficult to implement in a country dominated by functionally scientific illiterates, such as activists themselves, politicians and the media. 

The Communist parties seem much more retrogressive. The Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist; CP M-L) says that no GE crops should be introduced and field trials should be halted immediately.  The Communist Party of India (CPI) wants a moratorium on GE crops and favours organic farming, which would take the country backwards by some 50 years.  Organic farming is another fad being promoted by the same anti-tech lobby, as a ploy as organic standards does not allow GM crops to be included. Both the Communist Party (Marxist; CPM) and CPI would scrap the India-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, if they come to power, which is a dream, when they are likely to lose their position as pressure groups, which they enjoyed with the UPA Government, until the show down on the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement last year. To these anti-tech activists, leftists, socialist, and communists, their opposition to anything and everything is due to their anti-US phobia. They cut their noses to spite their faces. No scientific and technological development in the country must be allowed to become a victim of all these political shenanigans. The Indian Communists of India do not seem to be aware how strongly China, the life spring of their ideology, is committed to GE in agriculture. They should just find out about the role of GM crops have played to improve China’s agriculture. 
Some miniscule regional parties in Tamil Nadu have joined the chorus of ‘no GE crops’, reflecting localized ignorance.

The glaring dishonesty of the political parties lies in that they have been coalition partners in the earlier National Democratic Alliance Government or the current UPA Government or both, and under the Principle of Collective Responsibility of the Cabinet or as supporting partners of the respective coalitions, they have been a party to promoting research and development of GE crops in the country for over a decade.  For political gains they now sing a different tune.  This anti-biotech sloganeering has been lost in the electoral cacophony and does not resonate with the public. This is just a cry in the wilderness.

Soon the election results and political realignments would make many of the political parties irrelevant to policymaking, taking the wind out of their stated opposition to GE crops, but the activists would continue their tirade until they totally lose. It seems some other big issue needs to arise so that these activists can leave GM crops alone and move on.

A country’s science policy should be framed by its scientific community and managed jointly by the relevant scientific institutions and the appropriate departments of the Government but not by vested interests like the anti-GM activists of India who use junk science to pursue inept politics, often with support from foreign agencies. 
May 11, 2009