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Mainstream, VOL L, No 14, March 24, 2012

Beware of the Invasion!

Tuesday 27 March 2012, by D. Bandyopadhyay


This is not the marauding army of a Nadir Shah or Genghis Khan debauching into the plains of Punjab after crossing the Khyber Pass and the river Indus and its tributaries. Compared to the lethal effects of the impending invasion, the destructive power of those armies was negligible. They excelled in savagery, brutality and cruelty; but as they did not have any weapon of mass destruction, their damaging capabilities were limited compared to those at present.
This invasion is already on though on a limited scale. It has claimed 2,50,619 lives. According to the figures released by the National Crime Bureau of India, between 1995 and 2010 as many as 2,50,619 farmers committed suicide largely because of indebtedness. They were small and marginal Bt cotton farmers. Being lured by the prospect of high productivity and possibility of making windfall profit, they discarded their age-old traditional cotton seeds and went in for Bt Cotton seeds which were genetically modified and which required yearly replacement. They were cost intensive in chemical fertiliser and water intensive. Farmers had to borrow heavily for cultivating Bt cotton. They did not recieve the expected output. They did not get the appropriate market price. They suffered losses. They borrowed again but unfortunately met the same fate. They could no longer live with dignity. They committed suicide. Death extinguished their indebtedness.

Widespread use of Bt Cotton and a large number of farmers’ suicide resulted in a controversy regarding the abuses of the genetically modified seeds. The prime movers in favour of GM crops are the MNCs which spend enormous amount of money in developing and then patenting GM crops. GM crops offer very attractive and strategic control prospects to the MNCs which produce and sell these products. It is estimated that Monsanto, the undisputed leader in GM crops, earned a total revenue of US $ 8.6 billion in 2007 which rose by 74 per cent to US $ 14.9 billion in 2010. Staggering figures by any standard. Such MNCs have not only enormous money-power of their own, they get the full backing of their host country politically and diplomatically to push through their products into the Third World countries. Governments and other authorities in these countries yield to such pressures knowingly or unknowingly exposing their own populations to grave health hazard and seriously endangering their own biodiversity, the ill-effects of which are very often irreversible. It is not altruism to do good to the hungry millions of the Third World but base commercial and financial interests of a handful of MNCs which are behind the big push for introducing genetically modified seeds/crops in our country and elsewhere.

Genetically modified seeds are created by a highly sophisticated branch of bio-technology known as genetic engineering. In lay terms, it means “random insertion of select genetic fragments of DNA from one organism/crop into the genetic constitution of another, usually of a different, species”. While for the purpose of patenting the MNCs concerned claim these to be “novel products”, for the purpose of marketing such seeds they assert the diametrically opposite view that these have “substantial equivalence to the corresponding naturally occurring seeds”. Duplicity and deceit start at the source. Obviously, the outcome of the process is not likely to be wholesome.

Countries with vast land resources with a minuscule population engaged in agriculture have adopted the industrial-agricultural model through GM seeds. Just three countries—the USA, Brazil and Argentina—grow nearly 80 per cent GM crops cultivated the world over. Another three countries—Canada, China and India—account for 14 per cent.

The main uses of GM crops are (i) animal feed—GM soya/corn; (ii) industrial (as, for example, biofuel/textile); and (iii) other processed products (as, for example, GM canola oil). Very little of the GM crops like corn/maize are processed and packaged for human consumption.

NOTWITHSTANDING the claims of the proponents of GM crops, there is no evidence on the ground regarding the high productivity of these crops. On the contrary, the Indian evidence shows that the yield of Bt cotton has declined from 560 kg per hectare in 2007 to 512 kg per hectare in 2009 as reported by the Central Institute of Cotton Research. Available data the world over suggest that stagnation and even secular decline in the yields of GM crops. This was reported by the International Union of Concerned Scientists.

Secondly, coupled with the declining yield, the cultivation of GM crops is highly cost intensive. It requires assured irrigation round the cultivation season. With India’s 60 per cent rainfed cultivation, GM crops would be irrelevant for the majority of the small and marginal farmers.

Thirdly, such GM crops require high external inputs, the cost of which would be highly prohibitive in the absence of huge government subsidies. The US could afford GM crops because of the enormous subsidy that the US Government gives to agriculture. Our government cannot afford to give that level of subsidy. And there is no economic or ethical justification to do so only to promote the business of a couple of mega MNCs. Thus in a country where marginal, small and lower medium cultivators, who constitute 96 per cent of the cultivator population, own/operate roughly 64 per cent of land, this model of cultivation would be utterly unsuitable, uneconomical and patently inimical to the broader interests of the cultivating classes.

Fourthly, the invisible sinister motive could be to undermine the food security of the country. After a long and arduous process, India has obtained its minimal food sufficiency though we are far from having nutritional security and safety. Since the seeds of the Bt/GM crops have to be purchased every crop season from the MNCs producing them and since these patented varieties cannot be resown from the farmers’ own harvest as in the case of traditional seeds, any manipulation in the supply chain either by the MNC or by its host country would seriously undermine the food security and consequently the sovereignty of the country. One has to be fully aware of the threat to our political sovereignty through widespread cultivation of GM food crops in our contry. In India one should not forget that ugly incident when an US President snubbed and insulted our Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, when in the mid-sixties of the last century she went to the USA for the import of concessional food under US Public Law 480 to overcome the famine situation in eastern India, particularly in Bihar. In a not-so-friendly diplomatic situation, the host country, through its own MNC, can any time create a major food crisis by just putting an import embargo on GM seeds. The effect would be such destructive and damaging which none of the invading potentials from Alexander to Nadir Shah and Genghis Khan could ever imagine.

Fifthly, GM seeds pose serious health hazards. In May 2009, the American Academy of Environ-mental Medicine released a position paper on GM food articles, stating that they “pose a serious health risk particularly in the areas of toxology, allergy, immune function, reproductive health and metabolic physiologic and genetic health”. The Academy proposed a moratorium on GM foods.

Sixthly, following a public interest litigation, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India appointed Dr Pushpa M. Bhargava, an internationally renowned molecular biologist, to oversee the functioning of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India. Dr Bhargava openly declared that the said Committee “failed to take note of numerous research publications that have appeared in the world’s best known scientific journals warning against indiscriminate GM crops which cannot be recalled, no matter how much damage they cause”. With regard to Bt Brinjal, he added: “Some 30 tests are needed.... Monsanto has done less than 10 and we have no facility in the country to determine whether the tests were actually done, leave aside their validity... No studies were done on the effect of Bt on soil microbial species, or on soil nutrients or on cattle microflora.” The Committee for Inde-pendent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering, France, observed: “Bt Brinjal release into the environment may present a serious risk to human and animal health and should be forbidden.” The dauntless fight of Dr Pushpa Bhargava prevented the release of Bt Brinjal in our country, though the GEAC, notwithstanding its grand name, approved it thereby endangering both our biodiversity and health.

It is pertinent in this context to quote the observation of the President of the UN General Assembly on September 28, 2008. He stated: “The essential purpose of food, which is to nourish people, has been subordinated to the economic aims of a handful of multinational corporations that monopolise all aspects of food production from seeds to major distribution chains and they have been the prime beneficiaries of the world crisis. Research conducted by the UN Environment Programme suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increasing yields which that form of agriculture brings with it.”

Against the worldwide controversy about the GM seeds and crops, one wonders what prompted the Ministry of Science and Technology to bring in a Bill to establish the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI). The Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry, whose main function is to promote bio-techno-logy, is also proposing to be the regulator. It is taking over the role, in a lay language, of the prosecutor, the judge and the hangman alll in one entity. This is a travesty of any ethical jurisprudence. It transgresses and violates the basic principles of natural justice.

The proposed Bill, by totally disempowering the States and concentrating all powers of introduction of the GM seed/crop in the BRAI, is attempting to make the States a juridical nullity in respect of their constitutionally mandated authority regarding item Numbers 14 and 18 of the State List-II in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution relating to Agriculture and Land. It appears that having been thwarted by the States in its hurried attempt to introduce Bt Brinjal, the Department of Biotechnology is trying to take its revenge. When the issue of Bt Brinjal’s introduction in various parts of India was being considered, the State governments of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh had at different points of time formally and through the media made statements opposed to the introduction of Bt Brinjal in their respective States. Kerala, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh had formally written to the Central Government not to permit field trials of any GM crop in their respective States.

Today the States ruled by different political parties (other than the Indian National Congress) are quite conscious of their constitutional rights and obligations. They have not and will not tolerate any encroachment of their constitutional rights. The BRAI Bill flagrantly proposes to trespass into the States’ constitutional rights. If the Government of India fails to learn any lesson from its failure to get through the Lokpal Bill, the BRAI Bill is likely to meet with the same fate in the Rajya Sabha. For this likely failure the blame would squarely lie with the Central Govenment.

[The facts are based on the literature that was circulated by the Greenpeace Society of India.—D.B.]

Architect of ‘Operation Barga’ during the Left Front Government in West Bengal, the author was Secretary (Rural Development) and Secretary (Revenue) in the Union Government. Now retired, he is currently a Member of the Rajya Sabha representing the Trinamul Congress.

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