Agriculture

Double speak on diversity

Organic brinjal growers are quite satisfied with their usual cultivation at outskirts of Bhubaneswar when BT Brinjal controversy in the country is on. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty   | Photo Credit: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Even as the country is proposing to host the 11 Conference of Parties on the Convention on Biological Diversity at Hyderabad in October this year, the recent proceedings at the State Biodiversity Board (SBB) in Karnataka has raised the due hackles of all the stakeholders.

Prior to the shenanigans of a few state legislators including the State Minister of Environment Mr.Krishna Palemar watching porn clips in the Assembly came to the surface, the said Minister who resigned subsequently, took a decision in January that the Board would not initiate criminal prosecution against Messers Monsanto and Mahyco and others involved in bio-piracy while developing India's first Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) food: Bt Brinjal.

This has come at a time when the Ministry of Environment and Forests (2010) clamped a moratorium on the commercial application of Bt Brinjal, following a barrage of criticism that it is unsafe for human consumption when field trails and solid science evidence were not satisfactory.

The Karnataka Biodiversity Board's decision is a travesty of several statements and assurances made by the Minister of State for Environment & Forests Ms. Jayanti Natarajan to confirm that the prosecution would be initiated as a collective bid of the National Biodiversity Authority and SBBs, according to the Bangalore-based not-for-profit Environment Support Group (ESG); besides Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh Boards also needed to set off action as Monsanto/ Mahyco and others had accessed native brinjal varieties from all these regions without appropriate permissions, the ESG maintained.

The Biodiversity Authority Act the country passed early last decade clearly enjoins the State Boards as statutorily bound to protect the biodiversity of the country. A major means to securing this is to prosecute corporations, public institutions or individuals engaging in acts of bio-piracy. This is all the more laudable when the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, an ICAR body, is making every effort to explore, collect, characterize and safely conserve the native landraces including traditional varieties of all recommended varieties in the National Gene Bank (NGB). Incidentally, NGB currently holds 3, 88,210 accessions of 1584 plant species. These accessions are accessible to the researchers in the country for crop improvement through use in pre-breeding programmes and identification of genes through biological research incorporating precious traits in the new varieties. India also enacted the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Right Act 2001 to goad the development of new varieties of plants and to safeguard rights of farmers and plant breeders.

Interestingly, the Executive Director of the NGO Navdanya Trust and a well-known advocate of farmers' interests and a conservationist to the core Ms. Vandana Shiv was on record that ever since it was reported in 1995 at the UN's Plant Genetic Resources Conference in Leipzig that 75 per cent of all agricultural biodiversity had vanished because of the introduction of ‘modern' varieties, the erosion of seed diversity and with it the farmer's cognate rights has been at a faster clip.

To further compound the agonies of farmers, the advent of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPs) under WTO umbrella has expedited the spread of genetically engineered seed which could be patented and for which royalties could be gleaned from poor farmers. This has supervened with indigenous farmers progressively and painfully losing their basic right to save, breed and exchange seed, to have access to multiple open-source seeds which are not patented, genetically modified, owned and controlled by global seed giants that now straddle the farm front across the country and sell the seeds in India today at a premium.

As much as 95 per cent of India's cottonseed is now Monsanto's Bt Cotton with the country's King Cotton having long lost its cottonseed diversity and cottonseed sovereignty. So, the lack of genuine concern even among regulators such as the Karnataka Biodiversity Board by even ceasing prosecution against alleged violators of domestic laws smacks of the growing clout of pressure groups that gleefully wrest the elemental rights of indigenous farmers. In fact, GMO is not a recipe for ushering in ever-green farm revolution, if India is unable and unwilling to preserve its own seed strengths in all their variegated varieties and sui generis vitalities.

As efforts to nibble at the NBA (WHAT IS THIS?) are being made by State level Boards with the national authority remains insouciant, the foreign seed companies would make no bones about spreading their octopus-like reach in new and fancy foods by stepping up GMO both for food as also for feeds to animals that would be lethal to India's famed livestock population. It is time the Indian authorities took a few leaf out of the European Union (EU) which has its own European Food Security Authority (EFSA) which is the keystone of EU risk assessment on food safety. In fact, the European Commission in July 2010 came out with a proposal on how to combine the EU science-based authorisation with freedom for member states to decide on the cultivation of GMOs. The objective of this coexistence measure, in areas where GMOs are cultivated, is to preclude the unintended presence of GMOs in other products, averting the potential economic loss and the impact of traces of GM crops in non-GM crops such as conventional and organic crops. The domestic authorities too should deign to learn a few basic lessons from the EU so that the country's bio-diversity is not sullied by distorted priority on genetic experiments without due safeguards in place. The failure to ensure this might prove irreversible over the long haul for the health of the nation and its polity.

geeyes@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 9:57:00 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/agriculture/double-speak-on-diversity/article2949539.ece

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