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Bio-tech as bio-terror

While the recent decision to destroy acres of transgenic Bt. cotton in Gujarat may have been a landmark one, it also highlights the issue of the violation of bio-safety laws and norms, writes VANDANA SHIVA.

An anti-globalisation activist removing genetically modified corn crop at a research farm in southern France.

WHILE the public is preoccupied with an anthrax scare, another act of bio-terrorism is threatening our farmers and rich bio-diversity. Ten thousand hectares of transgenic Bt. cotton were found to have been illegally planted in Gujarat recently. At a meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) — the Committee in the Union Environment Ministry whose permission is mandatory for the introduction of any genetically modified (GM) crop — a landmark decision was made to order the State bio-technology co-ordination committee to destroy all standing crops of Bt. cotton.

Bt. cotton would not have spread so widely if laws and regulations had been adhered to earlier. The introduction of Bt. cotton in India was illegal and in violation of bio-safety laws and norms. In 1989, laws to regulate genetically engineered organisms were framed under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The bio-safety laws were titled ``Rules for the manufacture, use, import, export and storage of hazardous microorganisms, genetically engineered organisms or cells''. Under these rules, the permission of the GEAC is mandatory for any import, large local scale use or deliberate release of organisms into the open environment. Field trials in which a GM crop interacts with soils, other plants, insects and animals, are open trials, and need GEAC approval. A second committee, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) of the Department of Bio-technology (DBT), governs the clearances to genetic engineering experiments in laboratories or greenhouses that are totally contained.

Mahyco imported Bt. genes illegally without GEAC approval. In 1998, after the Monsanto and Mahyco formed a joint venture and Monsanto also bought a 27 per cent stake in Mahyco, the two companies started 40 open field trials in nine States without GEAC approval. These trials were in violation of bio-safety laws. They were also in violation of the Constitution since agriculture is a State subject and none of the nine States were consulted. Nor were the State Bio-technology Coordination Committee (SBCC) and the District Level Committee (DLC) informed in advance as is required under the bio-safety rules.

On January 6, 1999, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court to bring the ``bio-terrorism of bio-technology companies'' to the notice of the court and to seek protection of the environment, and ecological and economic security of farmers.

In spite of this, Monsanto and Mahyco repeated their illegal trials in 1999 at 10 locations. They continued to multiply seeds in total contravention of bio-safety laws that require that all planting material at the trial stage will be destroyed. Between 1995 and 2000, the companies acted without approval of the GEAC. In May 2000, Mahyco wrote to GEAC seeking approval for ``release for large scale commercial field trials and hybrid seed production of indigenously developed Bt. cotton hybrid''. In July, GEAC cleared large-scale field trials on 85 hectares and seed production on 150 hectares that was challenged.

Even a normal seed requires two years of trials and tests to ensure that new diseases and pests are not introduced. Since genetically engineered seeds introduce new traits into crops, their tests and safety assessments have to be more rigorous and more extended, and need to take place over at least five years before commercialisation. The GEAC's first approval came in July 2000. Bt. cotton seed should not be introduced commercially in India before 2005. It will in any case take five years to upgrade State agriculture research institutions to test for bio-safety and to get the gram sabhas, panchayats, district administrations, State Governments and union ministries fully equipped to deal with the new technologies and the bio-safeguards that must evolve simultaneously. In the absence of bio-safety capacity building, commercial introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) amounts to bio-terrorism.

The uncontrolled spread of GM seed in Gujarat is a result of five years of illegal seed production and multiplication by Monsanto and Mahyco over the past five years.

It somehow reached ``Navabharat seeds'', an Ahmedabad based seed company and it was sold as ``Navbharat 151''. The cultivation of GM cotton in Gujarat was not detected by any regulatory body but by Mahyco, which had spread Bt. cotton illegally over the past five years. The company that had repeatedly bypassed the GEAC, now ran to GEAC and the DBT wanting ``strong and immediate action'' against Navbharat for its ``blatant contravention of the legal and regulatory processes''. However, until July 2000, Mahyco and Monsanto had also acted in blatant contravention of the legal and regulatory processes. Whatever action is taken against Navbharat for violating bio-safety laws should also be taken against <147,1,0>Monsanto and Mahyco for their illegal trials.

As far as the issue of compensation and liability is concerned, Gujarat should immediately buy the Bt. cotton from farmers, which is in any case ready for harvesting, and pay them full market price as compensation. This amount should then be collected from Monsanto, Mahyco, and ``Navbharat seeds''. Monsanto, after all, ``owns'' the Bt. gene in Bt. cotton through a patent. In all laws of environmental pollution, the owner and producer of the polluting product are liable. The same holds for bio-pollution. Monsanto and Mahyco were responsible for destroying all planting material after trials. No seed should have been sold further.

The availability of enough seed to cover 10,000 acres in Gujarat is a result of violation of bio-safety laws first by Monsanto and Mahyco and later by Navbharat. How the Government handles the Gujarat case will determine the future of both bio-safety laws and intellectual property laws. Mahyco, and hence Monsanto, are outraged at Bt. cotton being grown in Gujarat not on grounds of bio-safety but because they would like to have exclusive rights to sell and produce Bt. Cotton as soon as possible. Their battle with Navbharat is a property rights battle.

Our challenge to Monsanto, Mahyco and Navbharat, and the regulatory agencies of the Government is on grounds of bio-safety and farmers' rights. We do not want to see our bio-diversity destroyed and our farmers ruined because of corporate bio-terrorism. We do not want corporations to destroy farmers' freedoms and choices through bio-pollution and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) monopolies. The engineering of the genes of Bt. toxins into plants implies that a high dose toxin is expressed in plant cells all the time. This promotes development of resistance in insect populations and the creation of ``super'' pests.

Monsanto's genetically engineered ``Bollgard'' cotton or Bt. cotton has genes from a bacteria engineered into it so that the plant produces its own pesticide, which is contrary to Monsanto's claim. Bt. cotton is not "pest-resistant" but a pesticide producing plant. The severe ecological risks of crops genetically engineered to produce toxin include the threat posed to beneficial species that are necessary for pollination and for pest control through prey-predator balance. Nothing is yet known of the impact on us when toxin producing Bt. crops such as potato and corn are eaten or on animal health when oilcake from Bt. cotton or fodder from Bt. corn is consumed as cattle feed. Further, while pesticide producing plants are being offered as an alternative to spraying pesticides, they will in fact create the need for more pesticides since pests are rapidly evolving resistance to genetically engineered Bt. crops.

Research at the Scottish Crop Research showed that ladybirds that fed on aphids which in turn were fed on transgenic potatoes, laid fewer eggs and lived half as long as ladybirds on a normal diet (Brich et al, 1996/97). The latest research that has sent shock waves throughout the scientific and environmental community is the finding by Cornell scientists that the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) was killed by ingesting milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from Bt. cotton (Losey et al., 1999).

This impact on non-target species falsifies the claims that the toxin in Bt. cotton only affects the cotton bollworm. If such Bt. cotton is allowed to spread across the country, its impact on diverse species will be similar to the devastating impact of pesticide use. In addition, the risks of a transgene moving into other plants will have the added risks of genetic pollution and the destruction of our bio-diversity.

Gujarat has 130 varieties of indigenous cotton. Genetic pollution would wipe out this rich genetic wealth. In any case, spreading the risk of genetically engineered crops is not necessary because organic cultivation produces more cotton of better quality at a lower cost.

It, therefore, brings a double benefit to farmers — lowering costs on expensive seeds and chemicals, and increasing income by producing a quality product. GM cotton is not a superior option for the farmer; it is only a preferred option for the bio-tech and seed industry that can lock the farmer into a new bio-serfdom based on patents and IPR, and the forced purchase of expensive and unreliable seeds at every planting season.

The Government needs to immediately set up a high level study to evaluate the risks and the benefits of organic farming vis-a-vis genetic engineering. Meanwhile, a five-year moratorium needs to be imposed on all commercial sales of GM seeds. The research and regulatory capacity for bio-safety need to be built in these five years at all levels — local, regional and natural laws for strict liability to reflect the ownership of GMOs as embodied in IPR regimes need to be evolved and implemented. Let the fields of Gujarat become an opportunity for creating national policies and laws that protect bio-diversity and farmers'rights. Let us ensure that corporate bio-terrorism does not become the culture of Indian agriculture.

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