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India bans some GMO crops while biotech illegally plants others
2/23 Update: India’s Prime Minister voids GMO ban: Sets up pro-GMO committee to vote this Saturday

By Rady Ananda

India’s battles over genetically modified organisms (GMO) intensified this month as both sides maneuvered to promote or resist their proliferation. Mediating the debate, at least for now, is India’s Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh.

On February 10, Ramesh ordered a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified brinjal (Bt-brinjal), a ubiquitous eggplant with 2,500 natural varieties. The Ministry seeks long term safety studies before lifting the ban.

Expressing concern for food sovereignty, Ramesh noted in his Decision on Commercialisation of Bt-Brinjal:

“Very serious fears have been raised in many quarters on the possibility of Monsanto controlling our food chain if Bt-brinjal is approved. ¶11

“Dr. David Schubert of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, USA …. says that Bt-brinjal … will increase social and political dependence on private companies….” ¶17

“Eminent government scientists have confirmed to me that a vast proportion of Bt-cotton seed currently being used in India is controlled directly and indirectly by Monsanto.” (Footnote 4)

“As a country, we must learn to derive full benefit of Monsanto’s expertise and capabilities, without jeopardising national sovereignty…” ¶11

Then, on Feb. 15, the Agriculture Minister confirmed that an unapproved genetically modified crop – Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant (HT) cotton – was commercially farmed illegally in three states for two crop seasons.

In response, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) moved on Feb. 18 to require registration of all GMO seeds. This will enable civil action against biotech firms should unapproved crops be sown or sold, inside sources told Business Standard. (Another decision Ramesh made on Feb. 10 was to partly change the name of the GEAC from “Approval” to “Appraisal.”)

Meanwhile, a bill has been introduced to usurp approval authority from the Enviro-Ministry, placing it under the purview of the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is mandated to promote biotechnology.

Groups reject stealth bill to usurp approval authority

South Against Genetic Engineering (SAGE), a coalition of over 100 groups in India, received the proposed bill anonymously, which is still marked “SECRET.” Under the Official Secrets Act, such documents are often not disclosed while being reworked. SAGE issued an alert that the moratorium on Bt-brinjal is being subverted by the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2009 (BRAI).

One safety concern is GMO contamination of natural fields, which is widespread in the US. In 2006, for example, Bayer CropScience ‘negligently’ released GM rice in the US, which contaminated at least 30% of the natural rice supply. Over 6,000 claims have been filed, with damages of $2 million awarded in December and, in a more recent case, $1.5 million.

Neither Bayer nor the USDA can explain the contamination. Indians are jusifiably concerned that Bt-brinjal will contaminate natural crops, thus destroying biodiversity.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, a GMO resistance leader in India, also rejects BRAI. In Developers Cannot Be Regulators, a statement released to Food Freedom, she writes:

“BRAI is the naked attempt by the Biotechnology Department (within the Ministry of Science and Technology) to appropriate to itself the work of regulating biotechnology in addition to promoting biotechnology.”

BRAI is the latest incarnation of the National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill, 2008, which she also opposed. Shiva advises that:

“BRAI … is a recipe for deepening the regulatory chaos as well as deepening the crisis created by conflict of interest issues related to genetic engineering.”

India already has strong laws that address biosafety regulation: the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006; and within the 1986 Environmental Protection Act (EPA), the 1989 ‘Rules for the Manufacture, Use / Import / Export and storage of hazardous micro-organisms / genetically engineered organisms or cells.’ Dr. Shiva explains:

“The substantial parts of what the BRAI will cover are already covered by the EPA rules…. The proposed BRAI is in total denial of existing law. The proposed law pretends we do not have a law under the EPA…. The BRAI is an attempt to dismantle the 1989 Law, and replace it with a law for fast track promotion of GMOs.”

Author of Corrupt to the Core, Dr. Shiv Chopra, a Canadian-Indian microbiologist who led the fight against Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in Canada, smells a conspiracy. Currently on a speaking tour in India, he advises in an email that BRAI is the primary subject of his talks:

“I, too, am strongly opposed to it. If accepted, [BRAI] will become the most offensive authority against the cultivation, trade and consumption of food and agricultural products of one’s choice. It will be unconstitutional and contrary to natural law or, if you like, the will of God.

“BRAI is designed to preclude the public’s right to grow, own, trade, transport, share, feed and eat each and every food that nature makes.”

In halting deployment of Bt-brinjal, India’s Environment Minister noted the need for “an independent National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority… with integrity and impartiality…. In the absence of such a body, arguments that have been made on the limitations of the GEAC cannot be ignored.” ¶14

Many had questioned the decision of the GEAC to refuse several independent studies suggested by an expert panel, prior to recommending Bt-brinjal for approval last October.

“While there may be a debate on the nature and number of tests that need to be carried out for establishing human safety, it is incontrovertible that the tests have been carried out by the Bt-brinjal developers themselves and not in any independent lab. This does raise legitimate doubts on the reliability of the tests….” ¶10

Ramesh solicited opinions from all sectors of society, and from other nations. His 19-page decision, by the way, is a fascinating read, exemplifying transparent governance and a thorough hearing from all stakeholders.

Passing approval authority from him to an agency legally mandated to promote biotechnology – as BRAI proposes – will destroy any rational basis for confidence the public can have in approved GMOs.

Much thanks to Sheila Parks, Ed.D., Claudia Woodward-Rice, Kavitha Kuruganti, and others, for their suggestions and/or contributions to this report.

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