NEW DELHI - As India's central government begins a series of public meetings across the country this month on the commercial release of genetically modified (GM) brinjal - or eggplant - in this country, activists and farmers' groups are mobilising to oppose such a plan.
The meetings are a response by Union Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh to a storm of protests generated by the approval issued by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in October last year for the commercial cultivation of the genetically modified ‘brinjal' - also called ‘aubergine' - to resist pests with a gene from the soil bacteria ‘Bacillus thuringiensis' (Bt brinjal).
The environment ministry's first hearing, held Wednesday in the eastern city of Kolkata, ended up in a shouting match between Ramesh and the scientists, activists and local citizens present, who were opposed to the introduction of Bt brinjal.
While Bt brinjal is the first GM food crop to be introduced in India, the South Asian country already grows GM cotton spliced with insect-resistant genes form the same Bt bacterium, which has been blamed for serious crop failures and mass suicides by farmers in the cotton-growing belts of Vidarbha (Maharashtra state) and Andhra Pradesh.
Leading the resistance to the introduction of Bt brinjal is international food security campaigner Vandana Shiva, a biosafety expert who helped develop the Biosafety Protocol, an international treaty that became operative in September 2003 under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
Shiva told IPS that the GEAC approval was based on a "scientifically unsound report at the level of food and agricultural systems" presented to it by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO), a subsidiary of the United States-based agribusiness giant Monsanto, and its partners at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Dharwad, Karnataka state and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University at Coimbatore district in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The GEAC, which is under the environment ministry, is tasked to regulate research, testing and commercial release of GM crops, foods and organisms.
"The GEAC panel did not address the real alternatve to chemical agriculture, which is biodiverse organic farming, which controls pests at the systems level by enhancing pest-predator balance and by growing crops with pest and disease resilience,'' Shiva said.
"Bt crops are a continuation of a non-sustainable strategy for pest control, which, instead of controlling pests, creates new pests and super pests. With Bt cotton a proliferation of aphids, jassids, army bug and mealy bug has resulted in a 13-fold increase in the use of pesticides in the Vidarbha region,'' Shiva explained.
Studies conducted by the non-government organisation Navdanya in Maharashtra - which, among others, promotes awareness of the hazards of genetic engineering - have shown that where 92 crores (20 million U.S. dollars) worth of pesticides were used in 2004, by 2007 farmers were spending 1,326 crores (71 million dollars) annually on pesticides.
There were many inconsistencies in the MAHYCO/Monsanto's presentations, said Shiva. "When the company wants to avoid risk assessment and liability, the argument is that the GM plant is ‘substantially equivalent to the non-engineered parent organism'. But when it comes to claiming novelty to gain intellectual property rights and patents, the argument turns to ‘substantially inequivalent' to the parent organism,'' Shiva argued.
Other known risks posed by Bt brinjal range from genetic pollution and contamination through cross-pollination in the fields to the possibility of allergies developing among consumers.
Indian farmers are typically smallholders and there is very little chance of them being able to protect their fields from cross-pollination. "Liability systems need to be evolved first to make GM crop companies pay for economic damages caused, especially to organic farmers," Shiva said.
The next scheduled public hearing on the controversial BT brinjal will be held in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa state on Jan. 16 and a third in Ahmedabad, Gujarat on Jan. 19. Similar meetings will be held in Hyderabad on Jan. 22, in Bangalore on Jan. 23, in Nagpur on Jan. 27 and in Chandigarh on Jan. 30.
Opposition to Bt brinjal and other GM crops is already growing among farmers' groups, the Union Health Ministry and even state governments such as Kerala's.
Already, mass petitions have begun to pour into Ramesh's office. One of them, from the village of Chengua in Orissa, declares: "We reject the approval of Bt brinjal. It does not have the approval of our Jaiv Panchayat (‘living democracy' movements, a community-level institution), and it will not be allowed to enter our fields and kitchens. We traditionally save our own seeds and consider the same as sacred.''
Kerala, run by an opposition Marxist government, has already banned all GM crops in the state on the grounds that it could cause erosion of biodiversity and endanger the diversity of crops, for some of which India is the centre of origin. Brinjal is among food crops considered native to India.
Cited in the Kerala ban are "irreversible and deleterious human health effects from GM crops/foods and adverse effects on other living organisms'' and "the possibility of systematic monopolisation of seed and other resources by a handful of large corporate bodies, to the extent that even future public research is jeopardized and farmers' a priori rights are completely violated.''
Opposition is also coming in from doctors' groups under a network called ‘Doctors for Food and Biosafety', which, in a statement released Monday, said that "the obsolete technology used in Bt brinjal incorporating antibiotic resistant markers is likely to have disastrous implications for developing countries like India which are struggling with communicable disease burden.''
The doctors have suggested that the introduction of Bt brinjal could jeopardise national health programmes against drug-resistant tuberculosis.
An independent analysis of the Indian situation by Dr Judy Carman, director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research in Australia, which will be submitted to the Indian Supreme Court, shows that "if GM brinjal comes into the Indian food supply, then every Indian will be eating it, resulting in 1.15 billion being Indians exposed to the GM brinjal. Because of the number of people exposed, if GM brinjal is later found to cause illness, it could cause significant economic and social problems for India.''
India is among the world's largest vegetable growers, with an annual production of 87.53 million tonnes, representing a 14.4 percent share of the world's output.
Declared Shiva: "2010 is the year of biodiversity and we are celebrating it by protecting our indigenous vegetable biodiversity and protecting our organic vegetable growers.''