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It’s time to confront the BJP on GM

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Eight months ago, they wrote to Manmohan Singh about GM and said decisions must be "based on sound science, principles of sustainability and intergenerational justice... we sincerely hope that vested interests would not be allowed to prevail".

Eight months ago, they wrote to Manmohan Singh about GM and said decisions must be “based on sound science, principles of sustainability and intergenerational justice… we sincerely hope that vested interests would not be allowed to prevail”.

The ability of the biotechnology industry to pursue its aims, regardless of the orientation of the central government, became clear on 18 July 2014 when the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) stated to the press that it has permitted field trials of genetically modified (GM) rice, mustard, cotton, chickpea and brinjal.

The brazen permission, with no details provided to the public of how the committee arrived at the decision (no agenda, minutes, attendance, notes, circulars), has been given by this committee despite the Supreme Court technical expert committee last year recommending an indefinite moratorium on the field trials of GM crops until government prepares a regulatory and safety mechanism, and despite the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, in its 2012 August report, advocating powerfully for a ban on GM food crops in India.

The decision to permit field trials is blatant bullying by a section of the so-called scientific and technical expertise of the Government of India, which has acted as the agent of the biotechnology industry in India and its multi-national sponsors. The permission also underlines how firmly entrenched the interests are of India’s biotech industry (which combines crops seed, pharmaceuticals and plant protection formulae) in that the industry has been able to get its way even though the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party explicitly included a statement on GM.

The GEAC committee [pdf]

The GEAC committee [pdf]

A committee such as the GEAC is unconcerned with the socio-economic ramifications of such decisions (a trait it shares with the rest of the industry-sponsored ‘scientific’ and ‘technical’ rubber stamps that litter central government, their cozy seats filled with feckless Indians). But the reaction has been swift and damning, and none of it angrier than from within the ideological allies of the BJP.

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch has accused the BJP of “deceiving the people” for “neither the government nor the GEAC has disclosed as yet the contents of the promised scientific evaluation, if any, or what changed between April 7, 2014 (the day the BJP released its election manifesto) and July 18, 2014, when the field trials of GM food crops were approved”.

“The people of India who have elected the BJP to power are feeling deceived,” said the statement. “They voted the BJP to power on the promises the party made to the people of India in its 2014 manifesto and speeches made by the leaders during the election.” In its election manifesto the BJP had written: “GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on the long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.” Those long-term effects have not been studied, and both the Department of Biotechnology and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change have – through their inaction – failed in their duties to the government by reminding it of its objectives concerning the safety of India’s people and environment.

How disconnected the work of the ministries and departments are from the concerns of farmers and consumers is obvious for, only a day before the despicable GEAC decision, Prakash Javadekar (Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change), told the Lok Sabha about India implementing the
Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing. “By promoting the use of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, and by strengthening the opportunities for fair and equitable sharing of benefits from their use, the Protocol will create incentives to conserve biodiversity, sustainably use its components, and further enhance the contribution of biodiversity to sustainable development and human well-being.”

GM seed, crops and food is not what the Nagoya Protocol means by “promoting the use of genetic resources” and this government’s statements about “fair and equitable”, about “sustainable development and human well-being” will prove to be as hollow and as cynical as the statements made, in such reckless profusion, by the Congress during both terms of the UPA. For an NDA government that has taken pride in recalling Deen Dayal Upadhya and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, it is not too much to recall that in a letter dated 8 November 2013 (addressed to the then prime minister Manmohan Singh) 251 scientists and academicians had asked the former government to accept the final report submitted by the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee on modern-biotechnology regulation [archive containing the Supreme Court report here, 3.2MB].

“Never in the history of agriculture has a technology been so controversial as Genetic Engineering (GE)/Genetic Modification (GM) of crops,” the letter had said. “The unpredictability and irreversibility of Genetic Modification (GM) as a technology and the uncontrollability of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) in the environment, coupled with scientific studies pointing at the potential risk to human health and environment, has resulted in a controversy across the world around the safety as well as the very need for introducing such potentially risky organisms into food and farming systems. These concerns, incidentally, have been raised first and foremost by scientists who are free of vested interests, on scientific grounds.”

Member companies of the biotechnology lobbying group ABLE-AG

Member companies of the biotechnology lobbying group ABLE-AG

It became quickly clear that the Congress government couldn’t have cared less about the carefully considered concerns of a large group of scientists and academicians speaking in one voice. In early February 2014 Manmohan Singh, in his inaugural address at the Indian Science Congress said that India “should not succumb to unscientific prejudices against Bt crop” (in what read like a script prepared for him by the public relations agencies for Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF and the rest of those who sit in the shadows behind the GEAC). At the time, the Coalition for a GM Free India had bluntly said Singh was wrong and was willfully misleading the country on the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops. Moreover, there is a growing body of scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of GM crops on human health, environment and farm livelihoods – compiled by the Coalition in a set of more than 400 abstracts of peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Technically, the companies which will benefit from the contemptible GEAC and its permission will have to get no objections from the states for field trials. The record of states is mixed – Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana have allowed confined field trials in the past; Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, West Bengal and Rajasthan have refused them. This disunited approach by the states only emboldens bodies such as the Association of Biotech Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), which is the biotech industry’s frontline lobbying group in India. “This is what we have been asking for the past three years,” ABLE-AG said on 18 July, “to approve field testing of new crops and traits. (Former environment minister) M. Veerappa Moily paved the way for it and we hope the new government will be supportive.”

The 336 seats that are occupied in the Lok Sabha – what prime minister Narendra Modi said is the ‘mandir of lokniti‘ on the first day the new government began its work – were not won for deception and false promises. Modi must annul the GEAC permissions, his government must abide by the provisions of the Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee report, and it must act on the advice of the Parliamentary Standing Committee report. Lokniti expects and deserves nothing less.

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