The humble brinjal’s Bt moment?

Between the U.S. approach of permissions and the European one of prohibitions, there lies a middle path based on precautions, the approach India needs to follow on Bt brinjal

August 01, 2014 02:25 am | Updated April 22, 2016 01:58 am IST

The present acrimony needs to give way to a reasoned and sober dialogue, says Jairam Ramesh, Former Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests.

The present acrimony needs to give way to a reasoned and sober dialogue, says Jairam Ramesh, Former Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests.

Shiv Visvanathan has, in his own inimitable style, called for a wider public debate on genetically modified crops (“ >Harvest of controversy ,” The Hindu, July 29). While doing so, he has drawn attention to the genetically modified brinjal episode and my own role in it — a role that has attracted bouquets and brickbats in equal measure.

Moratorium on introduction

Briefly, on February 10, 2010, as the Minister for Environment and Forests, I had, in a detailed 19-page “speaking order” made public immediately, overruled the recommendations of the statutory Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and imposed a moratorium on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal — the first genetically modified food crop sought to be sold in the markets. The moratorium had been imposed because of four crucial reasons. First, no State government cutting across party lines and ideologies supported the commercialisation. Second, there appeared to be no overwhelming consensus on it in the domestic and international scientific community. Third, there were concerns that seed supply would be the monopoly — direct and indirect — of one multinational company. Fourth, there appeared to be a persuasive case for more tests and trials under an agreed protocol and under an independent regulatory agency that would inspire wider confidence.

>Read: GEAC clears field trials for GM crops

Professor Visvanathan draws attention to the public consultations that were held which he feels strengthened the democratic process. These took place in seven cities — Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Bhubaneswar, Chandigarh, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Nagpur. Kolkata and Bhubaneswar were selected because West Bengal and Odisha account for 50 per cent of brinjal production in India. Ahmedabad was selected because of the success of Bt cotton in Gujarat. Nagpur was chosen because it is the home of India’s premier research institution in cotton and there have been controversies over Bt cotton in Vidarbha. Chandigarh was included because it is the capital of India’s two most agriculturally advanced States while Bangalore and Hyderabad were chosen because they are the most important centres for biotech Research and Development (R&D).

>Read: A call against Bt cotton

Over 8000 people from all sections of society — and I stress all — participated in these consultations. As expected, widely divergent views were expressed, including one that accused me of being an agent for the multinational in question! These consultations were videographed and put in the public domain.

The extreme intolerance on the part of the civil society activists as well as the disdainful arrogance on the part of the scientists were on full display. Simultaneously, the views of over 60 scientists in India, the U.S., France, New Zealand and other countries were sought. A number of them supported commercialisation while many others opposed it. Some others advocated caution and called for more data.

‘Conserve genetic variability’

I spent long hours with the doyen of Indian agricultural scientists and one of the key architects of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, (whose eponymous foundation is very active in the area of genetically modified crops) and his letter to me is reproduced below almost in full:

“Dear Jairam:

... My Postgraduate thesis at IARI [Indian Agricultural Research Institute] in 1949 was on Brinjal and non-tuber bearing Solanum species. I have studied our rich genetic wealth in this wonderful crop. What will be the long-term impact of numerous local strains being replaced with one or two varieties with Cry1Ac gene from Monsanto? I suggest that during 2010, ICAR [the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources], along with Dr. Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad [he maintains a national database on indigenous knowledge and farmers’ innovations], should both collect, catalogue and conserve the existing genetic variability in brinjal. Such a collection must be carefully preserved, before we permit the extinction of the gifts of thousands of years of natural evolution and human selection.

The second step which needs to be taken is to ask the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad and the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore to undertake a careful study of the chronic effects of Bt brinjal on human health. This is analogous to the studies carried out on the impact of tobacco smoking on the incidence of lung cancer in human beings.

It will be in the national interest to complete these two steps before a decision on the release of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation and human consumption is taken.”

The speaking order was at pains to point out that the moratorium should not be construed as discouraging the ongoing R&D in using modern tools of biotechnology for crop improvement and that it applied only to Bt brinjal commercialisation. Indeed, while announcing this moratorium, I announced my full support for genetically modified rubber.

The speaking order had also expressed the hope that the moratorium period would be used productively to (i) operationalise the independent regulatory body in its entirety as recommended by many scientists as well as civil society organisations; (ii) build a broader political (and public) consensus on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture; and (iii) give serious thought to the strategic importance of the seed industry and how we can retain public and farmer control over it even as we encourage private investment in this area. Alas, none of these three hopes has been even partially realised as yet.

Manmohan Singh’s take

The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had himself spoken about the issue in his address to the Indian Science Congress on January 3, 2010, in Thiruvananthapuram and the spirit of his remarks permeated the speaking order. He had said:

“Developments in biotechnology present us the prospect of greatly improving yields in our major crops by increasing resistance to pests and also moisture stress. Bt cotton has been well accepted in our country and has made a great difference to the production of cotton. The technology of genetic modification is also being extended to food crops though this raises legitimate questions of safety. These must be given full weightage, with appropriate regulatory control based on strictly scientific criteria. Subject to these caveats, we should pursue all possible leads that biotechnology provides that increases our food security as we go through climate related stress.”

The first Green Revolution was entirely public sector-driven. Improved varieties in rice and wheat were developed in publicly funded institutions and were disseminated through them. But over the past few years, the locus of R&D in agri-biotech has shifted to the private sector and it is this that has caused much of the concern.

Strengthening public sector R&D and reviving the public sector seed industry are critical imperatives if India is to move ahead in this vital area. The U.S. approach has been one of permissions, while the European approach has been one of prohibitions. The moratorium was the middle path based on precautions, an approach that would be both responsible to science and responsive to society. That, in my view, is the only way forward. The present acrimony must give way to a reasoned and sober dialogue.

(Jairam Ramesh was Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) Environment and Forests, 2009-2011)

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