Amid probe, Monsanto applies for research on hybrid onions

Over a year after bio-piracy complaints against U.S.-based multinational Monsanto — with regard to Bt brinjal — reached the National Biodiversity Authority of India (NBA), the investigation is still continuing.

However, when Monsanto sent in its application to use Indian onion strains for hybrid research last month, the Authority promptly forwarded it, and expects it to be dealt with by the end of the month.

“It is a matter of very serious worry that the NBA, which has failed to demonstrate urgency in dealing with the complaint of bio-piracy against Mahyco/Monsanto, has wasted no time at all in processing Monsanto's application to access onions,” says Leo Saldanha of the Environment Support Group (ESG), which is the complainant in the alleged bio-piracy case.

Now it is up to new NBA chairman Balakrishna Pisupati, who is set to take charge on August 12, to spur action in the long-winded investigation. While the NBA will meet on Tuesday, sources indicate that it is unlikely to take any decision on the Monsanto case just three days before its new chief takes over.

Dr. Pisupati, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics, helped develop and implement India's National Biodiversity Act, and has also worked with other Asian nations to draft frameworks allowing local communities to share the benefits of companies using their traditional genetic and biodiversity resources. He most recently headed a section of the United Nations Environment Programme's environmental law division in Nairobi.

Given his expertise in access and benefit sharing law, the Monsanto issue should be a textbook case for Dr. Pisupati. The U.S.-based agribusiness giant — in collaboration with several Indian and American institutions and funded by the U.S. government — allegedly accessed nine Indian varieties of brinjal to develop their genetically modified vegetable without any prior permission from the NBA or the relevant State and local boards.

Then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh halted the release of Bt brinjal on health and safety grounds in February 2010. But environmental activists pointed out that Monsanto and its collaborators had also violated the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992, and the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, by using the local varieties of brinjal without permission. This “compromises India's sovereign control over its biological resources” and also “denied economic and social benefits to local communities under the Access and Benefit Sharing Regime,” according to the ESG.

The ESG filed a complaint of bio-piracy — a cognisable, non-bailable crime with large financial penalties as well — before the statutory Karnataka Biodiversity Board on February 15, 2010.

The State board collected responses from Bt brinjal's promoters by June 2010; while Monsanto denied violating biodiversity protection laws, the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwar, claimed that the law did not apply to it as it was a publicly funded company.

The Karnataka Biodiversity Board held a hearing and then forwarded its evidence to the NBA, which is tasked under the Act with responsibility to take action and initiate criminal proceedings if required.

The State board has written at least four letters to the NBA between June 2010 and March 2011, urging appropriate action. However, the NBA has dithered on taking a final decision for over one year now.

“The NBA secretariat has been gathering inputs from various agencies on this case,” says NBA chairman M.F. Farooqui when asked why the investigation was being delayed. “A significant amount of material has been collected and a decision will have to be taken soon.”

Meanwhile, the NBA is conducting business-as-usual with Monsanto, processing its application to use two varieties of Indian onions for potential hybridisation. If no objection is made by August 27, the application will be automatically approved.

“When the Supreme Court found evidence of widespread illegal mining in Bellary, it banned all mining there as a precautionary principle,” says Mr. Saldanha. “Then how can the NBA entertain a fresh application from the same company which is being investigated for bio-piracy?”

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