Not all GM decisions are taken in accordance with scientific principles. India, which has become a favoured destination for the biotechnology industry that is virtually on the run from the United States, European Union and Australia, is a case in point. Besides cotton, genetic engineering experiments are being conducted in India on maize, mustard, sugarcane, sorghum, pigeonpea, chickpea, rice, tomato, brinjal, potato, banana, papaya, cauliflower, oilseeds, castor, soybean and medicinal plants in. The developments in the area of legislation with regard to GM foods in other parts of the world reveal a different trend.
In March 2004, Western Australia became the first Australian state to ban outright planting of GM food crops. Within a few days of this decision, Victoria imposed a four year moratorium on the cultivation of GM oilseeds rape to ‘protect its clean and green’ image. South Australia and Tasmania have also banned GM crops. In the United States, Mendocino County of California became the country’s first to ban the raising and keeping of genetically engineered crops or animals. In March, the state of Vermont, in a historic decision, voted overwhelmingly to support a bill to hold biotech corporations liable for unintended contamination of conventional or organic crops by genetically engineered plant materials.
The trend is the same across the ocean, in the United Kingdom. The dramatic turnaround by Bayer Crop Science to give up attempts to commercialise GM maize, has ensured that the country remains GM free till at least 2008. Despite Tony Blair’s blind love for industry, tough GM regulatory regime has come in the way of the adoption of the technology. In Japan, consumer groups announced their intention to present a petition signed by over a million to Canada’s Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister, Bob Speller. Japan is one of the biggest markets for Canadian wheat, and the petition calls for a ban on GE wheat in Canada.
In sharp contrast to what is happening in the developed North, in April, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in India approved yet another Bt cotton variety for the central and southern regions amidst reports that the go-ahead came without adequate scientific testing. The approval also comes at a time when the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is seeking public comment on petitions from Mycogen Seeds to deregulate two lines of genetically engineered insect-resistant cotton. APHIS is seeking public comment on whether these cotton lines pose a plant pest risk.
Such has been the casual approach to regulate this most controversial technology that it has become practically difficult to keep track of the new GEAC chief. They keep on changing at a pace faster than that expected from musical chairs. At the same time, while the UK has set in place a tough regulatory regime making the companies liable for any environmental mishap, India continues to ignore this aspect. The regulations that the GEAC had announced at the time of according approval to Bt cotton in 2002 were only aimed at pacifying the media. The GEAC has not been held accountable for its deliberate attempts to obfuscate public opinion, and it all seems part of an effort to help the seed industry make a fast buck.
It is a widely accepted fact that the safety regulations, including the mandatory buffer zone or refuge around the Bt cotton fields, were not adhered to. Yet the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi refrained from penalising the seed company. Nor did it direct Mahyco-Monsanto to compensate crop losses that the farmers suffered in the very first year of planting Bt cotton in 2002-03. That the crop had failed to yield the desired results was even highlighted in a parliamentary committee report.
While an NGO petition before the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) seeking an enquiry into the entire monitoring, evaluation and approval process was ignored, the US authorities have launched an investigation into reports of alleged bribing of Indonesian government officials who approved Bt cotton. Both the US Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission are examining whether a former consultant to Monsanto made an improper USD 50,000 payment in early 2002. Reuters reports that the company is one of the world´s leading developers of genetically modified seeds, but has had trouble getting some of its biotech crops approved in overseas, including biotech cotton introduced in Indonesia in 2001. Monsanto closed down the biotech cotton sales operations in 2003 after two unsuccessful years that came amid complaints over yields and pricing.
In Europe, a 2002 survey showed that 61 per cent of the private sector cancelled research and development activities as a result of moratorium actions. With highly critical reports of regulatory mechanisms coming in from respectable independent institutions, the trend in the US is also towards tougher regulations. This has forced biotechnology companies to even grow the next generation of GM crops in abandoned mines, using artificial lighting and air filtration to prevent pollen movement.
In India, however, experiments are even underway on several species of fish. In fact, such is the desperation that scientists are trying to insert Bt gene into any crop they can lay their hands on, not caring of any of the possible outcomes. The mad race for GM experiments is the outcome of more funding from biotech companies as well as support from the World Bank, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Interestingly, while the rest of the world is stopping GM research in the tracks lest it destroy farm trade opportunities due to public rejection of genetically engineered food products, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) merrily continues to sow a seeds of thorns for agricultural exports thereby jeopardising the future of domestic farming. But then, who cares for the farmers as long as GM research ensures the livelihood security for a few thousand agricultural scientists.
(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst)