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From Verbalism and Vocalism to Vandalism: Graduation of Anti-Agribiotech Activism in India
Prof. C. Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

A few years ago activists, allegedly belonging to the Karnataka Rytha Sangha, the State farmers’ organization, burned Mahyco’s trial Bt cotton fields in Karnataka, India.  

On October 28, 2006, in Rampura village in Karnal, Haryana State, the Bharatiya Kissan Union (BKU), a farmers’ organization, using some 400 local farmers torched Mahyco's Bt rice under field trials.   Mahyco suffers a loss of Rupees one million, and needs to restart the process.

A BKU leader threatened to burn all such fields in the country where trials are underway, and said that ‘On Friday (October 27), we got a tip-off from Hyderabad that such tests were underway in Karnal’. In all probability the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, an active anti-biotech group, could be the source of the tip-off.  BKU seems to have also sent a team to Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh), where similar trials are going on in a field. 

A source considers that ‘it's plain and simple misinformation that led to this’.  But this is a case where ignorance is no bliss. 

Though the Police were informed of the threat to burn the crop an hour in advance, they seem to have reached the field an hour after the damage was done. 

The destroyed rice crop was a Bt transgenic with Cry 1Ac gene, to control the shoot-borer disease, where conventional measures have largely failed.  The trials are legal for two reasons: a) on July 11, 2006, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) permitted Mahyco to conduct multi-location limited field trials of this transgenic, at 12 sites in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh, and b) Mahyco got on lease a two-acre plot of farm land of a Haryana farmer for Rs. 15,000, to conduct these trials. 

The activists cited several reasons in defense of their action:

That the farmer who leased the land was not informed of what seeds were sown and for what purpose, but one wonders if Mahyco was obliged to do this.  This farmer who joined the arsonists does not lose anything, as he gets his lease money and gains the appreciation of the BKU for joining them.

The Haryana President of BKU said that the ‘tests were being conducted in violation of the rules’.   What and whose rules were violated?  Under the statutory norms, the RCGM and other expert Committees monitor these trials for compliance of regulations and results.  Mahyco maintains that they adhered to all precautions essential for conducting the field tests.
The BKU leader declared that ‘such trials will be disastrous for the farmers as they will not only contaminate the soil, but also adversely affect yield from existing rice varieties’.   If he meant that Bt proteins get into the soil, he is ignorant that there is ever so much of Bt proteins in the soil, as Bt is an ubiquitous soil bacterium.   The leader certainly cannot explain how the yield from the existing rice varieties would be adversely affected. 

Another concern expressed was that ‘on-field GM trials in a region, which is the Centre of Origin, are fraught with risks to the bio-diversity of that crop and can contaminate the rice gene pool’.   No part of India is the sole Centre of Origin of rice.  Except the north eastern part of India and remotely possibly some districts in Orissa, no Indian region can claim to be the Centre of Diversity.   For the past several decades, all rice growing regions in India have been growing different varieties of rice developed in the Green Revolution packages, and the kind of change or ‘damage’ to the diversity feared from GE crops, has already happened.

The statement that ‘its (the GM rice’s) pollen could contaminate other non-GM paddy fields in the vicinity’ reflects sheer ignorance of the reproductive biology of the rice plant.  Field trials are carefully planned with adequate separation distances and a refugium.   The rice pollen are viable only for about five minutes during which they cannot be carried over more than a few meters and after that period they cannot ‘contaminate’ any other rice variety. 

The farmers said multinational companies were trying to destroy Indian seeds by bringing in GM seeds.   GE crops are introduced into the country adopting scientific and legal procedures and it was the private seed companies that largely sustained Green Revolution, resulting in surplus production of food grains in the country.

The statement that ‘such trials were being done surreptitiously without taking into account the consequences’ does not mean anything, when the feared consequences are not spelt out.   Even when unadvertised field are destroyed, what would be the fate of advertised trial fields?

GE crop vandalization occurred earlier also in Europe.   In the event of Golden Rice, research laboratories, trial fields and even scientific workers were attacked, striking such a fear that led to hiding a handful of prototype Golden Rice seed in a bombproof bunker in an unspecified place in Switzerland.  

In the European Union countries, the Law often caches up.  The Danish Terror Law was invoked in May 2006 against Greenpeace and the French Court of appeal convicted 49 activists for destroying GE maize in June 2006. 

In New Zealand, in 1999 the Wild Greens Group destroyed a GM potato trial at Lincoln. In 2002, protesters trashed three years of research on GM potatoes by the Crop and Food Research (CFR).   Whenever field tests were done, CFR fences the area and keeps it under 24-hour surveillance.   Tight security will now be in place to protect field tests for GE vegetables.

This time in India, fortunately there is some reaction from the Official quarters: a) about a 100 arsonists and their BKU leader were booked by the Karnal District Police, on October 30, on charges of criminal intimidation and damage to property by fire; b) Karnal Superintendent of Police said the role of the police would also be probed and if they were found erring, action would be taken;  c) the Haryana Government stated on October 31 that it will inquire into the burning of genetically modified (GM) crops by protesting farmers near Karnal city; and d) the Chief Minister of the State of Haryana stated that the incident of burning of the GM crops was unfortunate and it will be probed. 

When the GEAC ordered to burn illegal Bt cotton crop some years ago, farmers’ organizations prevented it, as any crop is sacred and cannot be destroyed.  Often farmers who are expected to respect a crop are instigated to vandalize it.  But destroying a legally grown private crop is a criminal act, which should not go unpunished. 

November 3, 2006